Baltimore County enforces policy barring craft fairs at schools

Parents at odds with officials

January 17, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

For 29 years, the craft fair at Ridgely Middle School in Baltimore County has built a sense of community, earned thousands of dollars for school projects and even taught young entrepreneurs about business.

The 2010 fair at the Timonium school drew about 100 crafters and hundreds of shoppers and raised $13,000. But a policy barring third-party vendors, such as crafters, from earning profits at county schools will most likely prevent Ridgely from hosting a 30th fair.

"It's a long tradition at Ridgely," said Kay Hardisky, PTA vice president and last year's craft fair chairwoman. "It's very popular in the community … and with vendors, who come back every year, and within the school."

According to the Baltimore County public schools' facilities policy, approved users such as the PTA cannot "sublease or rent BCPS facilities and grounds to any other parties," such as vendors. The policy is not new but the school system has recently been enforcing it.

"They are taking away all that social connectedness from schools that are desperate for revenue in these tough times," said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, parent of a student at Loch Raven High, which won a waiver to hold what could be its last craft fair this year. "Organizers work together on these fairs for months. This is a way to build community in school neighborhoods and raise funds that go directly back to the schools. This is an extremely misguided policy that should be changed."

Parents are asking for a change in the policy or an exemption for craft fairs, arguing that they help fund much-needed school improvements.

Charles Herndon, schools spokesman, assured parents that there are ways to work with school facilities administrators, including an appeals process.

"We understand people's concerns," he said. "But we have to think about the mission of a school and what we are here for. It is not our mission to provide others the means to make money that is not for education purposes. We are schools, not bazaars."

Some parents wonder why for-profit companies, which sell rings, photos and yearbooks at the schools, are not included in the policy. Herndon said those companies are permissible because they are conducting education-related business.

"I can't understand the rule," said Bonnie Keller, president of Dulaney High School's PTA, whose fair was scrapped within weeks of its scheduled December date. "Why can other third-party vendors come into the school and make a profit, when we can't? Why are they picking and choosing?"

Keller said she fully expected Dulaney's seventh annual fair, set for Dec. 4, to take place. She began organizing in June and answered several requests for various forms from school officials.

"I thought I was just going through a paper chase," she said. "But they chased us right out of the event. By the time they told us no, there was no time left to fight their decision. I felt betrayed by the county."

The fairs bring hundreds, in some cases thousands, of visitors into the schools and generate income for school projects through fees charged vendors. The events also help connect parents and provide families a chance to work together for the school, Hardisky said. There have even been business lessons for some Ridgely students.

Ridgley eighth-graders Jessica Penn and Shannon Brennan shared the cost of a booth last fall. They sold Jessica's handmade jewelry and the belts and key chains Shannon made from recycled drink boxes.

"It taught me how to be more responsible and how to figure out how much supplies were needed to make the items I was going to sell," Shannon said. "I learned how to be a good salesperson. It was worth all the time I spent making my crafts because I saw how much everyone liked them."

Jessica appreciated the feedback from fairgoers and the camaraderie, she said.

"I was a little nervous about having my own booth," she said. "But other students helped me set up and the other vendors felt just like my neighbors."

Marge Bryant, a former county art teacher and a longtime vendor at Ridgely and Loch Raven, said the fairs support schools that are in desperate need of funds and offer shoppers an alternative to malls.

"People look forward to these events every year," Bryant said. "Taking them away doesn't help anybody. It really is a disservice to the community."

Nancy Ostrow, president of the PTA Council for Baltimore County, which represents 160 PTAs throughout the county, said there is confusion about the rule even though it has been in place for years. She has scheduled a workshop later this month to help clarify the policy, but acknowledges officials might have to revisit the issue.

"What are they trying to prevent?" she asked. "Have they taken away events that they did not intend to?"

Ostrow would prefer that PTAs refrain from fundraising and instead focus on advocacy for their respective schools, but understands the economic realities.

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