Baltimore County rewrites school facilities policy

The Baltimore County school board is expected to vote Tuesday night on a revised facilities policy that would allow PTAs and community groups to hold craft fairs and bingo games that had been in jeopardy.

Responding to a deluge of public complaints, the school system has rewritten the policy and rule twice so that most of the uses that community groups lobbied for will be allowed.

Members of school PTAs became upset last year when school administrators began enforcing the policy, which prohibited third-party vendors from earning profits at county schools. The rule led to the cancellation of long-standing craft fairs that raised tens of thousands of dollars for PTAs.

The school board decided to add language that says it "recognizes that school facilities are an essential component of the communities which they serve" and allows both nonprofit and for-profit organizations to use them.

"The board of education and the administration have listened very carefully to the public input, and we have attempted to craft language that will open the facilities up to the general public for usage," said Michael Sines, who oversees facilities for the school system.

"If the facility is available, and if the activity is legal and not contrary to another board policy or would create a problem through our insurance carrier, then the program will most likely be acceptable," he said.

While the policy is not new, the school system had recently begun to enforce it because of concern about the heavy use of facilities, liability issues and costs for utilities and maintenance.

Leslie Weber, the former PTA president of Loch Raven High School who helped form a coalition to oppose the facilities policy, said she was happy with the changes.

"I do think they listened to a lot of our concerns," she said. "The policy … is trying to welcome the community back in."

Weber said she was surprised to see that for-profit organizations now would be specifically allowed. Craft fairs and flea markets also should be permitted, she said.

The school system has changed the policy in several ways that are beneficial to community groups, she said. For instance, a rule that required that nearly every group have insurance to use schools has been somewhat loosened, she said.

The school system also added a better process to allow community groups to appeal if they are denied use of a school. In addition, the requirement that all admission charged had to go back to the school system would be eliminated.

The rule became a sensitive subject because community groups and PTAs foresaw the end of events that had been held for decades and had raised thousands of dollars for items like sports equipment, marching band uniforms or technology that principals didn't have money to fund out of their own budgets.

Parents had been upset that the school system was starting to prohibit activities that raised money for schools. In addition, neighborhood groups said the rule was separating the schools from their communities by prohibiting Dumpster days and electronic recycling that were held on school property on weekends.

The school board originally responded by rewriting the policy, which went through three readings but was tabled at a school board meeting in early July after criticism remained.

The most recent changes were completed in the past week and are to be introduced Tuesday night.