Members of the North Laurel Civic Association are angry about a new user fee that Howard County school officials are charging for space at the neighborhood school, the only place the nonprofit community group has to hold its meetings.
"We don't have the money," said Patsy Yingling, president of North Laurel Civic Association. "Other parts of the county have community centers. We have nothing."
Though the amount may be small -- $16.50 a meeting, or about $160 a year for the 74-member civic association -- the fee hits a raw nerve in the North Laurel area, where residents have long complained that they are neglected by Howard County's government.
In February, County Councilman Dennis R. Schrader, who represents the area, began pressing for a North Laurel master plan that would consider such issues as services, overcrowded schools and the area's dearth of parks and community facilities. Citizens from throughout the area have been meeting to discuss the community's needs.
For members of the North Laurel Civic Association, the school system's decision to charge for use of the Laurel Woods Elementary School media center is more than just a symbolic blow.
The group's $7 annual dues pay for newsletters and stamps, said Ms. Yingling. The association cannot afford the added cost of room charges. "I don't think it's fair," she said. "Isn't our tax money paying for the school?"
The controversy began March 23, when the school board approved the new user fee for all nonprofit adult groups, partisan organizations and programs unrelated to school activities or children's groups such as Cub and Girl Scouts.
The fees start at $4.20 for a minimum of four hours in an elementary school classroom and range up to $94.55 for a minimum of four hours in a high school auditorium.
"The charges we're talking about are not severe," said Chuck Parvis, a specialist in the school system's community services division. "We're not trying to stifle community use at all. But it's very important that we look at all groups equally."
On March 31, Mr. Schrader wrote to Superintendent Michael E. Hickey asking that the North Laurel Civic Association be exempt from the fee because the group doesn't have significant income and lacks community facilities.
He was rebuffed, however, when the superintendent replied that the school system must apply the fee consistently to all organizations.
Mr. Parvis said there are about 25 to 30 other civic groups that are being charged under the same formula as the North Laurel Civic Association. Some are also in the Laurel area, including the Hunter's Creek Homeowners Association, which meets in the Hammond Elementary School.
A community center in the Laurel area is high on the list of topics for the Hunter's Creek association and the North Laurel Civic Association. Both are among Laurel- and Savage-area community organizations that have been meeting over the past few months to discuss area needs.
North Laurel Park, the community from which the civic association draws its membership, has no recreational facilities or community parks. To use a park, residents must go to Savage or Columbia several miles to the north or south to Prince George's County.
Mr. Schrader said the community groups should have a community center proposal within the next few months.
Until a community center is built, Ms. Yingling said she is looking for alternatives to paying the school system's user fee. "I'm almost to the point of having the civic association meetings in my house -- down in my basement where I have my day care," she said.