In the dark on stadium lights; County receiving pressure to let booster groups pursue private funding


Howard County is one of only two Maryland jurisdictions -- Baltimore being the other -- where community groups cannot at least help pay for lighting public high school stadiums for night events.

But the county's school board and lame-duck school superintendent are feeling renewed pressure to stop keeping stadiums at nine of 10 public high schools in the dark, out of step with suburban competitors.

Late last month, the five-member school board delayed for a month voting to allow community groups to pay for lighting while superintendent Michael E. Hickey formulates a new statement on the issue, which he has opposed.

But whatever Hickey, who is retiring in 2000, decides, the issue seems unlikely to go away. Groups backing lights exist in at least four county schools. And others are said to be closely watching what comes of the bid before the school board, which Glenelg High's boosters initiated this spring.

"Glenelg has its act together," said George Mitroka, of Centennial High's boosters. "In the past, it's been like pushing a wet noodle up a hill, but Glenelg has done a lot of good work, and if it's not approved this time, we'll just wait for a new [superintendent] to move in."

Said Valerie Hillman Narron, a former Howard High cheerleader who now has two athletic daughters and heads Glenelg's lighting committee: "It started with us, but we've heard from almost every school. So people throughout the county are working on this. We're asking for, really, very little."

Specifically, Glenelg's group wants, not county government money, but sanction to proceed with raising money -- including corporate sponsorships -- to put up lights and then work with school officials to finish the job. After last month's near-miss board vote, the Glenelg group even expressed willingness to compromise on a regional approach -- lighted fields west and east of U.S. 29 that multiple schools could use.

Several sources said that could mean, at minimum, lighting the county's two newest high schools, River Hill and Long Reach, because both have 75-yard wide soccer fields and the most up-to-date turf and stadiums. Soccer, particularly for Columbia rivalries and at playoff time, draws large crowds, and the wider, flatter surfaces are preferred by those in the sport over narrower football fields.

"There's not a lot of down side," said school board member Stephen C. Bounds, whose proposal on behalf of the Glenelg group seemed favorable to two board colleagues, enough for a majority vote. "To me, if schools want to raise the money to put them in, it's appropriate. It could be done with little or no cost out of the [school] budget, so it doesn't make a lot of sense for the board to oppose it."

Donald Disney, the county's athletics and physical education coordinator, said parent interest in lights also exists at River Hill and Long Reach.

"I hear about the lack of lights everywhere I go," said Disney, who is in an awkward position from a policy standpoint. He deals with both athletic directors and coaches, who generally favor lighted stadiums, and principals, whose boss tells him, Disney said, they oppose the idea.

"When I'm at Howard," he said, referring to the only county school with lights and that a dim, outmoded system initially financed in the early 1960s by a booster's second mortgage on his house, "people come up and say, 'Isn't this great?' I say, 'Yes, it is.' "

Technically, Disney said, the county has no policy or philosophy prohibiting lights. But neither has school administration authorized boosters to raise money for lights. Hickey rebuffed the last organized attempt in 1987.

Such authorization is needed, Disney said, and administrators in neighboring counties agreed, because of school ownership of the lighting, construction standards, maintenance, and limits on when night events, such as football, soccer and lacrosse games, are permitted.

Except for affluent Howard County and financially strapped Baltimore, Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said he knows of no Maryland school jurisdiction that does not permit lighting if a community wants it.

An informal survey of athletic supervisors in adjoining counties revealed a mix of financing methods having been used over the years, from installing lights at government expense, to having boosters and corporate donors put up the money, to mixing public and private money.

Of Central Maryland schools, several in Harford County have had lights as long as 50 years. At the other extreme, Prince George's County has just three lighted stadiums, mainly because taxpayers have forced school officials into severely limited budgets for a decade or more.

Baltimore County is the most recent convert to lighted stadiums, having begun the work in the late 1980s, in most cases adding both lights and seating. Some varsity teams there also have access to 20 lighted middle and elementary school fields the county's recreation department maintains.

Once lights are installed -- for $75,000 to $150,000 -- upkeep is minimal, folded into routine maintenance budgets, area supervisors said. Vandalism is minimal, they said, and no one has experienced crime problems some raise as a prospect after night games.

The supervisors, to a person, cite positive experiences with lighted stadiums: larger attendance with parents -- and not just those of players -- more able to attend night games than afternoon contests, increased revenue and no apparent impact on academic performance.

"We're finding that night games can help bring communities together," said Ron Belinko, Baltimore County's veteran athletics supervisor. "It gets more students involved in activities -- and there's more ownership in the community."

Lighted stadiums

Here's how Howard County high schools stack up compared to those in competitive school jurisdictions in Central Maryland:

*High Lighted

Area schools stadiums

Anne Arundel 12 12

Baltimore 23 0

Balto. County 23 10

Carroll 5 5

Frederick 8 8

Harford 9 8

Howard 10 1

Montgomery 23 20

Prince George's 20 3

* Those with competitive sports programs.

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