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Weekend use of schools assured


Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall and county school Superintendent Larry L. Lorton have reached an agreement to keep school buildings open for use on weekends by recreational and community groups.

The agreement came late yesterday after several days of talks. While Neall has agreed to continue funding weekend use of the schools indefinitely, he said that the issue may have to be looked at again in an effort to keep the budget in line.

Facing a projected $8 million deficit this year, Lorton last week banned overtime pay for school custodians. The ban would have prevented custodians from opening and closing schools on the weekend for use by various groups.

But Lorton's prohibition on weekend use sparked complaints from community leaders, parents and the groups directly affected, leading to Neall's intervention.

Ron Beckett, the school system's assistant superintendent for support services, said Neall asked Lorton to allow the schools to remain open while a committee of school and county officials look for additional ways of reduce the projected deficit.

The school system's budget is $330 million this year, Beckett said.

In other cost-saving measures:

* The school system has approved a plan to set thermostats in secondary schools at 65 degrees during the day and 55 degrees after school and on weekends, and at 68 degrees in elementary schools.

* Also, school offices are to be closed on Dec. 26, 27 and 28 to conserve energy. Athletic events scheduled for those days are to be held but school officials have advised those planning to attend to dress warmly.

Lorton's ban, which was to go into effect tomorrow left many community organizations in limbo.

Jay Cuccia, assistant to the director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks, said he felt as if parents and community and recreational groups were "in a holding pattern."

Former County Councilman Theodore J. Sophocleus said the superintendent's initial decision had the potential of adversely affecting thousands of children. "I think he can find other ways to make up the shortfall," Sophocleus said. "Make adjustments in heating and lighting.

"But to take it out on them, to take it out on the kids, it's just not right. With drugs everywhere, we're in an era where we should be making more use of the schools," he added.

Sophocleus said that when he was a councilman, $1 million was put into the budget for extracurricular activities in the schools. To date, only about $400,000 of that money has been spent, he said. Now, Sophocleus said, because of the projected deficit, the school system is saying that it wants to take the remaining $600,000 for the activities.

"That was not the intent of the council," said Sophocleus, who lost to Neall in the November election. "It's not legal to move from one category to another. Those clubs signed contracts in good faith. I think there's a legal issue here."

Cuccia said that, while this time of year is traditionally slow for his department, the new year will bring with it the start of many athletic leagues, such as men's basketball. It is possible, he said, that if the superintendent's ban had remained, his department may have had to cancel the leagues.

"On any given Saturday or Sunday, we have games in the school from 8 a.m. to eight, nine or 10 at night," Cuccia said. "It would be very difficult to move those games to the middle of the week. For one thing, we don't know work schedules, or what times we could have the schools.

"Then, there are parents to consider. They're not going to want their kids out late at night on a school night."

And the parents have been calling to complain, Cuccia said.

He said his department had checked into using other recreation centers and non-public facilities but there doesn't appear to be enough of them to go around.

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