School craft fair issue to come before Balto. Co. Council

Parents want school board policy revised

March 06, 2011|By Mary Gail Hare, The Baltimore Sun

Parents and community leaders will ask the Baltimore County Council for help Monday as they fight to continue holding craft fairs and other fundraisers in county schools.

The county Board of Education policy, which bars third-party vendors from earning profits at county schools, has drawn strong criticism. More than a dozen opponents are planning to ask the council to take action on the rule, which they call misguided, economically unsound and unfriendly to the community.

"It is not smart policy or smart government, particularly in these lean times," said Eric Rockel, president of the Greater Timonium Community Council, which includes about 50 neighborhood associations. "It is exclusionary and certainly a disincentive to involving schools in their surrounding communities."

While the council's authority does not extend to school facilities, several officials said they are calling for a reversal of the board's policy.

"We understand the board's concerns about heavy use of facilities, but most of these events have sterling records, especially when it comes to cleanups," said Councilman David Marks. "We are hearing complaints from our constituents. Our job is to advocate for our constituents."

School board members are aware of the criticism of the policy and will review the issue at a retreat scheduled for later this month, said Phyllis Reese, spokeswoman for county schools.

According to the 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, often citing liability issues related to use of the building and costs for utilities and maintenance staff.

Rockel, who said he will be among those addressing the council, wrote in the association newsletter that the ban is creating a divide between schools and their surrounding neighborhoods. He sees "a slow, creeping disconnect" that originates with administrators at school headquarters, he said.

The policy could spell the end to events that have continued for decades and brought thousands of dollars to school projects.

Opponents of the policy argue that fairs bring hundreds, in some cases thousands, of visitors into the schools and generate income for school projects through fees charged vendors. They believe the policy will also prohibit Dumpster Days and electronic recycling projects on school parking lots. These events not only encourage recycling but also build community spirit, organizers say.

Council President John Olszewski said he is opposed to any policy that does not allow communities to use school facilities to their benefit. He has asked school officials to consider "grandfathering in" the events that have become traditions as well as those that provide community benefits.

"These craft shows generally draw vendors who live in the community," he said. "That way not only the PTA makes money, but residents in the community make money, too."

All those who sign up to speak before the 7 p.m. council session will be allowed three minutes to address the council at the end of the legislative session. At board of education meetings, speakers are randomly selected from those who have put their names in a box.

"The good thing about the council is everybody who signs up gets to speak," said Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, an officer in the Loch Raven High School PTSA. "We have not been successful with the board of education. The best we have gotten is that they will study again."

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