Church use of school probed

City principal defends waiving required fee for wife's congregation

August 06, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

A Baltimore principal is allowing a church his wife runs to hold services at his school for free, waiving $4,140 in annual fees for electricity and other basic costs, a Sun review has found.

Ronald N. Shelley, executive director of the Stadium School, says the majority of the fees aren't applicable in his case because he's doing the janitorial work and providing security during the services himself.

"Everything else is a donated fee by the city," he said in an interview.

The Holy Temple Holiness Church of Deliverance Inc. - where Shelley's wife, Margaret, is the registered agent in official state documents - holds services Friday nights and Sundays, not during the school day.

But several current and former school staff members expressed concerns about a potential conflict of interest, since some students attend the church and at least one parishioner has worked at the school. The school's Web site says Shelley, whose position as executive director is equivalent to a principal, is "an ordained minister and missionary" of the church.

"I thought you couldn't mix church and state," said Tanisha Elliott, who was a media teacher at the school and also worked in its office until this spring. "That was always my understanding, but I suppose there's always gray area in every law. Honestly, I think that gray area is how he's been able to operate this long and not fall under any type of scrutiny. This has been going on for some time."

State law allows religious and other groups to use school buildings during noninstructional hours, and seven churches in Baltimore - including Shelley's - have permits from the school system to do so. However, Maryland schools charge a fee for such use.

City school system officials say they have launched an investigation to ensure that all churches holding services in city schools are paying their fees.

"We're looking at every one of them," said J. Keith Scroggins, the system's chief operating officer.

Some school systems, concerned about the appearance of a church-state conflict, have set restrictions on how long churches can operate there. In Harford County, the school board adopted a policy last year that sets a five-year limit on use by religious groups. There is also an annual review to determine the progress churches are making toward finding a permanent home elsewhere.

In Baltimore, schools are supposed to charge $138 each time an outside group uses an elementary school, $230 for use of an elementary/middle or middle school, and $345 for using a high school.

But Scroggins said rates are adjusted depending on factors including the length of an event, how much electricity is required to heat or cool a building, and whether extra custodial work is necessary. Of the churches that hold services in city schools, annual rates range from $2,444 to $20,676.

The Stadium School was one of the first small, innovative public schools in Baltimore. It serves about 200 students in grades five through eight, and its curriculum is supposed to be project-based and teacher-driven. Its test scores are generally better than the city's traditional middle schools.

Holy Temple Holiness holds services there twice weekly in a common area that Stadium shares with adjoining Abbottston Elementary School. Shelley said the services typically draw between 20 and 25 people, and the church pays the required insurance in case anything happens to the building.

"You're not talking about large sums of money," he said. "You're just talking about a place to worship."

In a state trade-name application for the church, both Ronald and Margaret Shelley signed as its owners.

Under city school board policy, principals have the authority to approve or deny a request by an outside group to use school facilities during noninstructional hours. But the policy says a principal should consult with the system's business office "whenever a request is received that is considered unusual or raises a concern."

System officials said they are investigating whether Shelley consulted with anyone to approve the church's permits, which list his wife's name as the applicant.

It is unclear whether the church has had permits for all of the time it has been operating at the school.

Officials said Margaret Shelley filed paperwork in July 2006 and April of this year, each time for a four-month permit to hold services. She has also filed three permits for car-wash fundraisers for the church held at the school.

Teachers at the school say the services have been held consistently for at least the past year.

According to system officials, the other churches with permits to operate in city schools are:

Highway Church and Ministries, operating at Steuart Hill Elementary for $20,676 a year.

Save Another Youth/New Promise Land Community Church, operating at Calverton Middle for $2,444 a year.

Alabaster Christian Ministries, operating at North Bend Elementary for $8,424 a year.

Street Lite Christian Fellowship, operating at Digital Harbor High School for $8,400 a year.

Feed the Masses, operating at Dickey Hill Elementary for $4,617 a year.

Church of the New Millennium, operating at Grove Park Elementary for $13,680 a year.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

Read The Sun's education blog at www.baltimoresun.com/classroom.

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