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Despite controversy, most Harford school athletes have paid to play

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Despite the ongoing public controversy about it, Harford County's $50 pay-to-play fee to participate in athletics is having little apparent impact on the players themselves.

According to a public schools spokesperson, there are 3,050 students on the rosters for fall interscholastic sports, and the fees have been paid, or waivers have been approved, for 99.4 percent of those student athletes.

Friday is technically the deadline for a player to either pay the fee or obtain the necessary waiver or else be declared ineligible.

Teri Kranefeld, manager of communications for Harford County Public Schools, wrote in an e-mail that 19 participants' fees were still "outstanding" as of Tuesday; however, she cautioned that school administrators are still entering their data for students who have paid or been approved for waivers.

"We will continue to reach out to the remaining students and parents to offer assistance with the process," Kranefeld added.

She said the coaches are working with their teams and players to ensure they and their parents get the information they need to make the payments on time, and point them toward resources which would help them pay the fees, if they can't.

Exemption issues

While the first season where pay-to-play has been in effect as a budget balancing measure moves into its third full week of actual contests, back and forth continues among school officials, elected officials and members of the community over the need for the charges and the different exemptions and loopholes being provided.

In addition to imposing the $50 fee to participate in a high school interscholastic sport, school officials have also levied a $25 fee to participate in clubs and many other extracurricular activities in elementary, middle and high school, although not all of them. A number of exemptions and waivers are permitted, which has touched off hostility among parents, some of whom are also school system employees.

Teachers and other professionals in their bargaining unit are exempt from paying fees for their children to participate in sports and other activities, even if the parents are not members of the teachers' union.

The same cannot be said for thousands of non-teachers who work for the school system in classroom support, maintenance and operations.

Some non-teaching employees who have children in the school system have begun to complain about the unequal treatment, while others outside the school system continue to chafe at the fees which were implemented as a supposed budget balancing measure.

"The school system's definition of a teacher is an employee who provides instruction to students," Kranefeld explained recently. "That definition includes all employees who are covered under the [Harford County Education Association] agreement."

The Harford County Education Association, or HCEA, represents teachers, guidance counselors, media specialists, psychologists, occupational and physical therapists and speech and hearing clinicians, union President Ryan Burbey said.

Burbey said all Harford County school employees in those positions are eligible for benefits obtained by the union, whether they are members or not. Leaders of the HCEA bargain for about 3,200 of the system's 5,300 employees; about 2,000 teachers, guidance counselors and others included in the bargaining unit are union members, he said.

"We didn't ask for that, though," Burbey said of the fee exemption. "[The school board] just gave it to us."

Teachers do not have to be union members to be exempt from paying the fee, according to Burbey and Kranefeld.

"Anything that eases teacher pain, we're all for, but it wasn't something we negotiated," Burbey explained.

In addition to exempting children of teachers, students who quality for free and reduced meals, or FARMS, and whose parents are active-duty military do not have to pay the fees.

More than 11,000 elementary, middle and high school students received meals through the FARMS program during the 2012-2013 school year, according to data posted on the website run by the Maryland State Department of Education.

Kranefeld said the figures for the current school year are not yet available because the county's enrollment will not be finalized until Sept. 30.

Discrimination claims

Leaders of the Harford County Educational Services Council, the union serving school support staffers, have protested the exclusion of other school employees from the fee exemption.

Union leaders and parents claimed during a Sept. 9 school board meeting that the fees were a form of discrimination against low-income employees and parents who did not have credit cards or Internet access.

Eric Watson, a senior at the private John Carroll School and vice president of the Harford County NAACP Youth Council, suggested allowing parents to pay by check, cash, money order or the electronic PayPal system.

Leaders of the HCESC represent Braille technicians, clerical workers, inclusion helpers, instructional related technicians, media technicians, nurses, paraeducators, school bus driver instructors, secretaries, sign language interpreters, transliterators and transportation specialists, according to the union website.

The union has about 400 members and represents about 1,100 support personnel, president Victoria Bridges said.

Employees in three other bargaining units are also not exempt from the activity and athletic fees, Kranefeld explained.

Those units are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Association of Harford County Administrative, Technical and Supervisory Professionals and the Association of Public School Administrators and Supervisors of Harford County, according to the school system website.

The AFSCME union represents about 900 public school employees, including bus attendants, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, facilities and maintenance trades workers and "other non-instructional support related employees," Kranefeld stated in an e-mail.

Mecca Woods, a payroll clerk and member of the support staff union, spoke to board members about the difficulties she would have paying the fees for her two children who attend Aberdeen High School and participate in multiple sports and activities.

She estimated it would cost about $1,000 to cover all of the activity and athletic fees for her younger child, who is a freshman, by the time that child graduates. Her older child is a junior.

"I stand to pay over $400 this year," Woods said. "My children play a fall, winter and a spring sport, plus they want to be included in some of the clubs."

She asked how she could "come up with $400, so they can play the sports that they love."

Kranefeld said Monday that the members of the school board would have to amend the exemptions they already approved to add any more groups.

Fee information

The 2013-2014 school year began Aug. 26; the deadline for paying fees for fall sports was Sept. 3, and the respective deadlines for winter and spring are Dec. 2 and March 17, 2014.

Kranefeld noted Monday that, according to the procedures developed for paying the athletic fee, students have up to two weeks after play begins for their sport to pay the fee. That deadline would be Friday for the majority of fall athletes.

Kranefeld said students who transfer to a new school during the year would also be covered under the two-week period.

Students who still have a "financial obligation" two weeks after play begins will be suspended from their teams until their families pay the fee or a waiver has been approved, according to the procedures, which are also posted on the school system website.

Payments must be made with a credit card, through the mySchoolBucks portal at http://www.myschoolbucks.com and parents can get to the portal via the fee web pages.

The payment portals for the activity fees will be open at the end of September, Kranefeld said last week, noting that many activities do not have specific seasons, but take place "at different times and frequency" during the year.

The fees are not refundable "under any circumstances, including injury and ineligibility," according to the web page, and students whose parents have paid do not have a guarantee of playing time in the case of sports.

The students who provide services to sports teams, by serving as announcers, managers or statisticians, would not pay a participation fee, according to the web page.

A list of the activities that parents must pay participation fees for is on the web page.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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