Balto. Co. school leaders to review 'craft fair' policy

Parents, leaders say policy on outside use is too limiting

March 19, 2011|By Andrea K. Walker, The Baltimore Sun

The Board of Education of Baltimore County will reconsider a policy that limits craft fairs and other fundraisers held at school facilities, its members decided Saturday.

The board will have its policy committee review the rule and decide if changes need to be made that would allow more people to use school buildings. The full board would then vote on any changes, said Earnest E. Hines, board president.

"When the public has real concerns about something, we have to go back and examine it," Hines said shortly after the board made the decision at a retreat.

The policy has stirred protests from parents, community leaders, state lawmakers and County Council members, who say public buildings maintained by taxpayer money should be available for wide use by the community.

While outside groups are permitted to use school facilities for events — such as fundraisers, craft fairs and cultural celebrations — there are some restrictions. The most debated has been a guideline that says groups cannot "sublease or rent BCPS facilities and grounds to any other parties."

The rule, which has been on the books for years but recently has been more strictly enforced, has ended a long-standing practice at many county schools of PTAs holding fundraiser craft fairs. PTAs can raise thousands of dollars at these fairs, but they often rely on outside vendors to come in and sell their wares. PTA groups have had to scrap their craft fairs this year because of the policy.

Officials with the school system's Office of Physical Facilities, which oversees maintenance of the schools, argue that overuse of the schools adds physical stress to already aging and distressed buildings. The system has spent the past few years implementing new procedures to better maintain school buildings, but said upkeep can be costly.

Opening the schools to outside vendors also raises liability and safety issues, Michael Sines, executive director of the facilities office, told the board.

Sines and his staff looked at similar policies at six other school systems and found that only Montgomery County allows school space to be subleased. Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Harford, Howard and Prince George's counties do not, they found.

"I know that nobody seated here wants to disappoint the community, but it's not just about disappointing the community," Sines said. "It's about making informed decisions."

The majority of board members said they felt the buildings should be open to more people and that restrictions should be loosened some. Many of the members described the schools as the "heart" of the community.

"I feel this board has made it abundantly clear that we feel these facilities need to be made more accessible to the public," said Valerie A. Roddy, who represents the 5th council district.

Board member Lawrence E. Schmidt, of the 3rd district, said he thought the county is violating state regulations that say the public should be allowed to use school facilities. Sines said the board's legal counsel determined there was no conflict, but said he would get further confirmation for the board.

Some members questioned how much wear some of these events could actually have on school buildings.

"Activities outside or in the hall, I don't think cause all that much damage," said Michael H. Bowler, who represents the 1st council district.

Hines said it is unclear how long it would take for the policy committee to review the policy and decide on changes.

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