$100 drama fee stays for Harford students next year, as school board fails to overturn it

Harford County students gathered outside the school system's headquarters in Bel Air Monday to sing in protest against the school's pay-to-play fees. (David Anderson, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

More than 50 Harford County students, parents, teachers, alumni, even former school board members, pleaded with the Board of Education Monday to rescind a $100 fee to participate in high school drama productions, but their efforts could not sway enough board members.

"We can find a place for each student to succeed in our programs," Chuck Bowden, a Bel Air High School drama teacher and director of the school's drama company, told board members during the public comment portion of Monday's meeting, another marathon session of over five hours.


Prior to the meeting, students and their supporters held a protest, singing tunes from various productions, outside the A.A. Roberty Building in Bel Air, the school system headquarters.

"If there had been a financial barrier when I was a student at Bel Air High School, I probably wouldn't be doing the things that I'm doing now," Bowden said.

The school board, however, voted 5-3 against a motion by member Al Williamson to amend the fiscal 2017 budget approved by the board June 13 by removing the drama fee.

"I am not in favor of pay to play, sports, anything," Williamson said.

The school system administration projects the fee would raise $50,000, if 500 students participated next year. The additional revenue would help offset $552,293 appropriated from the operating budget fund balance to preserve the HCPS swimming program through the next fiscal year, which begins Friday.

The board previously agreed to appropriate $5.52 million from its fund balance, or cash reserves, to help balance a $438.9 million operating budget. Other balancing measures included doubling the sports participation fee from $50 to $100, the $100 drama fee and cutting 51 full-time positions.

"My overall view is that it's very much a part of the educational system," Williamson said of sports and extracurricular activities. "It's as important as any other part."

Williamson, Laura Runyeon and Jansen Robinson, supported the motion; Joseph Hau, Robert Frisch, Tom Fitzpatrick, Vice President Joe Voskuhl and President Nancy Reynolds voted against it. Board member Rachel Gauthier was absent. There was no discernible pattern in the vote. Williamson and Runyeon are two of the board's three members appointed by the governor, as is Hau. The others were elected from each of the six county council districts. Reynolds, Voskhul and Frisch are former public educations, Voskhul and Reynolds with HCPS, Frisch with Baltimore County Public Schools.

Voskuhl, a former Bel Air High principal, stressed HCPS is not alone among school systems in the U.S. for charging student participation fees. At the previous board meeting on June 13, he made the motion to double the sports activity fee and to re-establish the drama fee, which along with other non-sports activity fees approved in 2013 were rescinded the previous board.

Voskuhl said the school board faces difficult budget choices, and he does not want to risk cutting more teachers and staff or programs.

"Those are decisions that we do not make lightly, and those are decisions we as a board we have to make and we don't do it just to do it," he said.

Genae Hatcher, the board's outgoing student representative, also expressed her support for eliminating the fee. The board's student reps isn't permitted to vote on budget and personnel matters.

Hatcher, who graduated from Patterson Mill High School earlier this month and was taking part in her final board meeting Monday, said participation in drama in elementary and middle school, and her freshman year, has contributed to her successes.

"We believe in the education of the whole child," she said.


Supporters of drama programs in multiple high schools took issue with how the drama fee had been presented to the board with no time for public input, that they felt drama students were being singled out and students across the board should have to pay an activity fee, that many families cannot afford the fee, and no student should be barred, because of cost, from taking part in a program that gives them a strong peer group and teaches them life skills such as teamwork, time management and a work ethic.

"Having that extra family is honestly, in my best judgment what has kept me around to this day," said Christian D'Achille, who will be a senior at Bel Air High next year.

"I have grown as a person, and I have grown to love myself and to accept myself more than I can imagine before I entered high school," he said.