More protests fail to sway Harford School Board to end drama fee

A motion failed to bring the fee up for discussion at Monday's school board session

Harford County students and their supporters staged another lengthy demonstration Monday evening over a $100 participation fee to participate in high school extracurricular drama programs, but they were unable to sway the county Board of Education to consider repealing the fee.

More than 100 students, graduates, parents and other supporters gathered in front of the circuit courthouse on Main Street in Bel Air around 5 p.m., many carrying signs or waving American flags and receiving horn honks of support from passing motorists.

The students demonstrated less than 100 feet from where location scenes for the popular Netflix political drama "House of Cards" were recorded on the evening of Oct. 3 and about half a block from where the school board was scheduled to meet at 6:30 p.m.

Many of those who took part in the street protest then packed into the board's meeting room at school headquarters, where the meeting began with a spirited debate on a motion by board member Jansen Robinson to put the drama participation fee on the meeting agenda for discussion.

Robinson's motion was voted down. However, board members did allow those in the audience to speak to the issue, and 49 people came to the podium to urge repeal of the fee, which was imposed by the board in June to balance the current school year's budget.

Many students talked about how drama has helped them deal with shyness, anxiety and depression and even kept them from hurting themselves or ending their lives in a few cases.

"It's a safe haven for those who need support," Morgan Nikol, a Bel Air High School senior who has been involved in drama since her freshman year, said. "You cannot walk into our auditorium without feeling at home."

Drama students and supporters also staged a protest over the fee in late June, but the school board refused to rescind it then, as well.

Harford schools also have a $100 fee to participate in each high school interscholastic sport. That fee was doubled from $50, and the $100 drama fee was instituted when the board voted June 13 to adopt a $438.9 million operating budget for the current school year.

"Not allowing a discussion on this issue, that's just wrong," Robinson said.

Board member Tom Fitzpatrick, who noted he and other board members had been "inundated" with emails earlier in the day about the fee, expressed concerns about the board making a hasty decision to rescind the fee after the board had already adopted it in June in what critics considered a hasty manner.

He wanted to take the time to get additional information from school system staff about the potential revenue that could be lost from the fee and how rescinding it could affect the budget.

Fitzpatrick also expressed concerns about misinformation in the public, such as claims that Havre de Grace High School ended its drama program because the fees were too much of a burden.

He said he contacted the school and learned that the program is still in place and a spring production is being planned.

Fritzpatrick also noted that the operators of Harford Property Services, a Havre de Grace based company, are still willing to cover HHS students' drama fees under a pledge the company's owners made in the spring.

"I am not opposed to discussing the issue, but I am opposed to uninformed discussion," Fitzpatrick said.

Board Vice President Joseph Voskuhl proposed the fee in June as a way to raise revenue and help offset money transferred from the operating budget fund balance to keep swimming pools open and restore overnight student visits at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center.

He defended that decision Monday, noting the board had voted once to put the fee in the fiscal 2017 budget and voted two weeks later against rescinding it in the wake of the first protests.

"A budget is based on revenue streams and expenditures," Voskuhl said. "It is bad fiscal policy to go back and delete a revenue stream and then have to figure out what expenditures we're going to cut to make up for that loss of revenue."

He said the pay-to-play fees should instead be reviewed as the school system develops its fiscal 2018 budget.

Superintendent Barbara Canavan will host a community town hall on next year's budget from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the school system headquarters, the A.A. Roberty Building, at 102 S. Hickory Ave. in Bel Air.

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