Nonprofit groups that want to use school facilities to serve children will be able to do so without having to pay a fee, thanks to letters, e-mail and public testimony from community members who said fees were unfair.
The Board of Education voted last night to change its policy on how the community uses the county's 67 school buildings and fields. Instead of giving free access to school space only to groups that have PTA sponsorship or have leaders who volunteer their time, the system's community services director expanded the benefit to all nonprofit groups that are youth-oriented and provide educational or community services.
Whether the leader is a paid employee or the group has PTA backing will no longer be a factor.
"I really think of it as just opening the doors for more programs for our community," said Chuck Parvis, the district's community services specialist, after the board's vote. "They pay taxes. The community should be allowed to use them."
The discussion evolved after an independent analyst hired by the school system to study the district's services and operations pointed out that the public facilities could be a source of much-needed revenue for the schools, if administrators charged more users for space.
The consultant said it was costing the district about $1 million to open school buildings and fields to outside users. By charging only some users - and not all - the school district was recovering only about half of that money.
As a committee pondered whether to charge all groups, community members stepped up to decry the idea.
"We've received a lot of e-mails in the last week and a half," since the board opened the floor to public comments about the district's 20-year-old policy, said board Vice Chairwoman Sandra H. French.
Community members were not concerned only about the fees.
Many also want a better, more efficient application system that does not require them to reapply every season for a classroom, auditorium or gymnasium.
Board members asked Parvis if he would consider making applications good for a year, or at least a semester, to reduce citizens' inconvenience - and staff members' work.
"It may be less work," Parvis said. "But I don't think it would be the most efficient use of the space, and I think that's more important."
Parvis said he has studied other counties' procedures, and breaking down the application period by seasons is the best way.
"It seems to work very well that we are using the space in the best possible way, based on the seasons," he said. "I think it's better. I will stand by the statement I made to [The Sun]: I think ours is the fairest and best policy in the state. I stand by that."
As proof, Parvis pointed out that more than 1,300 groups use school facilities every year for 379,000 hours of community use, and most are satisfied.
Although nearby Montgomery County brings in about $3 million by charging all users to rent school space, Parvis said he is glad the board voted to make less money, not more.
"I think it's good that they will be using our schools," he said, after the vote. "If we had to build facilities for these people to use, we wouldn't have any grass left."