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School fees price some groups out

February 23, 2004|by SCOTT BUTKI

scottb@herald-mail.com

While some churches continue to pay fees to use Washington County Public Schools facilities, similar fees now being charged to youth groups have prompted the Girl Scouts of Shawnee Council to move some of its troop meetings to churches.

Unlike the schools, churches are letting the Girl Scouts use their property for free, said Jane Barvir, membership specialist for the Girl Scouts of Shawnee Council.

A survey last week of some of the groups paying to use school facilities found this and other changes have occurred since the Washington County Board of Education decided in August 2003 to revise its fee policy.

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The board increased the fees for some groups and imposed fees - for the first time - to youth groups.

Representatives of some of the groups say the board decision forced them to make changes in operations and their budgets.

In response to some criticism and concerns over the fees, the Board of Education decided at its Feb. 17 meeting to invite all facility users to an informational meeting.

The meeting is tentatively scheduled for March 18 at 7 p.m. in the Board of Education auditorium.

On Sunday, Board President W. Edwin Forrest said the board is interested not just in what people think of the fees but also if they have alternative proposals on how the school system can pay expenses incurred because of groups using the schools.

Barvir said she thinks it is unfair for the school system to charge fees to nonprofit organizations offering after-school activities.

Money raised by some of the 1,000 Girl Scouts in Washington County now has to go to pay the fees for those troops still meeting in schools, she said.

Barvir also is the basketball director for the Chewsville Smithsburg Leitersburg Athletic Youth Association, which serves 300 youngsters ages 7 to 14.

When she first heard of the fee increase, her reaction was gloomy: "We are done. There is no way we can afford this."

In response to the August action, the association has reduced the number of schools it is using from four to two, she said.

Even with that change, though, the association had to increase its season membership fees from $25 to $60 per person, she said.

The Hagerstown YMCA is one of the most frequent users of school facilities.

Executive Director Michael Flicek refused last Wednesday to comment on the fee increase beyond saying he is glad the system is establishing a task force and he hopes to serve on it.

The American Legion's Funkstown post decided not to field a baseball team this year, citing the fee increase as one of the reasons.

The school system's fee schedule charges different rates for different uses. For example, cultural, recreational and community involvement groups pay more than instructional programs and youth groups.

In response to the fee increases, Crossroads Church now uses hallways and dividers in classrooms to reduce the number of classrooms it pays to rent, Senior Pastor Chuck Frank said Thursday. The church pays about $20,000 in fees a year, he said.

Frank supports the fee increase, which the school system said it needed to pay for approximately $100,000 in costs related to providing facilities for non-school groups.

"I know they have not raised the fees (since 1993) and I have no problem with that," Frank said. He likes the fact that the church is able to help pay school expenses, he said.

William Blum, the school system's chief operating officer, has said that for every dollar not charged to the groups, the money needs to come from another source and he does not think that source should be students' textbooks.

Blum is scheduled to make a presentation at the March informational meeting.

The Use of School Facilities by Non School Groups policy and accompanying regulation was adopted by the Board of Education in 1976. The policy regulation, which includes a fee structure for usage, was amended in 1985 and 1988. The board modified the fee structure again in 1993.

When the board voted unanimously in August 2003 to change the fee structure, "the cost of heating and cooling the buildings and other related costs for maintenance and personnel had risen over the past 10 years, and that as part of their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers of the county, the board needed to address the issue," the board said in a news release.

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