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Baltimore County Board of Education puts controversial school-use policy back in limbo

School board wants more time to ponder public input on proposed policy changes

By Jay R. Thompson, jthompson@patuxent.com

1:03 PM EDT, July 19, 2011

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Baltimore County Board of Education members on Tuesday decided not to vote on a new version of Policy 1300, its controversial policy governing the use of school property by non-school organizations, but instead sent it back to the board's policy review committee.

Since the Board of Education decided during its March 19 retreat to review the matter, the board has received dozens of comments from the public about the proposed changes.

Though the policy revision was scheduled for a vote at the Tuesday meeting, board members weren't comfortable making a decision.

Board member and former vice-president Edward Parker moved that the proposed changes be sent back to the review committee "to specifically take under consideration a myriad of comments from the public and board members," he said.

Board member Rodger Janssen felt the same.

"I would prefer to take it home and review it more in depth," Janssen said.

The board's new president, Towson native Lawrence Schmitt, agreed.

Policy 1300 prohibits for-profit vendors from using school grounds for events.

The policy had been a source of tension between the school system and PTAs — and also with state and local legislators — because PTAs and other school booster groups had, for years, been allowed to use school grounds for events like craft fairs, in which they'd sublease individual booth space to for-profit vendors.

The PTAs and booster clubs often raked in thousands of dollars from each event, money they would funnel back into the school via scholarships, financial support for school technology funds and other school programs.

About two years ago, the issue came to a head when the school system began to increase enforcement on the policy, denying applications for events that had been held annually for years.

As a result, several long-standing events have been canceled, including community-beloved events such as craft fairs at Loch Raven High School, Ridgely Middle School and Catonsville High School, as well as a huge town festival at Perry Hall High School, a flea market at Parkville High and other events, most of which were the primary fundraisers for those schools' PTAs and booster organizations.

Other nearby school districts, including of Prince George's, Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel and Montgomery counties, permit for-profit activities on county school property, according to Baltimore County school officials.

Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools do not allow for-profit activities, with the exception of sales of necessary goods and services, such as food for the cafeteria, photography for yearbook photos, class rings and the like.

Additionally, Montgomery allows sub-letting or subleasing, meaning that if a PTA rents a school for an event, it is permitted to rent spaces to for-profit vendors.

Baltimore County's policy does not allow the same.

The five main changes to Policy 1300 proposed by the county school board's policy review committee are:

• Adding a direct link in the policy online to the Use of School Facilities application form.

• Adding a list of groups authorized to use school facilities.

• Adding an outline of conditions of use of school facilities.

• Waiving fees and insurance requirements for groups of fewer than 50 individuals.

• Adding language about the process of appealing to the board.

If the changes had been approved Tuesday night, they would have taken effect immediately, according to Charles Herndon, a spokesman for the county school system.

Pushing the policy back to the policy review committee gives board members more time to make an decision, but leaves organizers of school fundraisers waiting to see what they will or will not be able to do on school grounds in the next school year.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Leslie Weber, president of the Loch Raven High School PTSA, expressed frustration over the delay.

"Unfortunately, now the whole matter is back in limbo," Weber said. "Summer is planning time (for school supporting organizations)."

But Weber didn't give up.

"Let's keep working together," she told the board.

During the public comment period of the meeting, before the board decided to send Policy 1300 back to committee, Nancy Ostrow, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, criticized the process of determining changes to the policy.

"Change involves communication and collaboration," she said. "There is a lingering concern that a stakeholder (and) community task force was not established to assist the school board."

Chances are the conversation on the policy will continue at the next Baltimore County Board of Education meeting, which will be held at 7 p.m. Aug. 9 in the board chambers at 6901 N. Charles St. in Towson.

Policy 1300, as it exists, can be found on the county school website, http://www.bcps.org, by clicking on "Policies and Rules" under the "Our System" menu.

The proposed changes to the policy can be found under Exhibit B of the board's July 12 agenda online at http://www.bcps.org/board/agendas.