Some of the hundreds of outside organizations that pay a user fee to hold their meetings or performances in Harford County public school buildings are in line for a hefty rate increase with the start of the new school year.
Under a proposal put forth by the school system's Policy Review Committee and recommended by the superintendent, rates to some groups could more than triple.
Take, for example, the Harford Ballet Company. Its cost for a two-day event would jump from about $190 to $766, according to a sample application-of-fees chart presented to the school board at its meeting Monday night.
"This is going to be a shock to some people," said Joseph Licata, assistant superintendent for operations. "There are people in the community who will say we have already paid for these buildings, why do we need to pay more?"
Part of the problem, Licata said, is that the user fees have not been increased in at least six years and probably not for 10 years.
"In the past, we were so liberal that we were just about giving our buildings away," he said. "It's like paying 31 cents a gallon for gasoline and then all of a sudden being forced to pay today's price. It's a big adjustment."
Pam Villeneuve, director of Harford Ballet, agrees that the charge by the school system has been too low, but she balks at the higher fee.
"It's not worth it," she said. "I have to spend another $1,200 to make the school facility functional."
Villeneuve said the school system would be pricing itself out of the market because the lighting and sound equipment at most of the schools is broken or not adequate for professional stage performances.
She said that the private John Carroll School charges only $120 an hour and provides the ballet with all its needs. "They have competent people, we have good communications and they treat us as professionals," she said.
Under the county schools' proposed fee structure, Crossroads Community Church, which holds its Sunday worship service at C. Milton Wright High School, would pay nearly $400, up from the $130 it currently pays.
The church uses the school's cafeteria for children's services and the auditorium for adult worship four hours each Sunday starting at 8 a.m.
Bob Bullis, the pastor, said he had not been informed of the proposed increase but took the news in stride.
"C. Milton Wright is ideal for us," he said. "The facilities are good. It has parking, and it's in the neighborhood we are trying to reach."
"I'm sure they are not raising the fees without a good reason," he said. "We like meeting there, and we will do what we can to meet the cost."
He continued: "I don't think they are out to get anybody. It's like fuel costs going up. We will have to take it in stride and meet the cost increases."
During the committee meeting, Superintendent Jacqueline C. Haas said the school system has been talking for several years about the escalating cost of providing services to outside groups.
The board requested additional time to consider the issue.
Board member Mark M. Wolkow, who represents Abingdon and Edgewood, said the group needs at least a month of public comment on the proposed changes.
Along this line, board member Karen L. Wolf of Fallston will work with Licata to set up a focus group of users to get their input on the changes.
In answer to a question from Robert B. Thomas, a board member from Joppatowne, Licata said that users would be told up front about the higher costs before contracting for the buildings.
Licata said that the schools are used more by outside groups - including the Harford Ballet, Vineyard Oaks Home Owners Association and the county offices of planning and zoning and parks recreation - than they are for teaching.
He said outside groups use the buildings before school starts in the morning and as late at 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. "They are almost constantly used five days a week and to some extent on Saturday and Sunday," he said.
Under the proposed fee structure, not every group would pay the same price. There rate would be lower, and the priority higher, for groups directly related to school activities, including retired teachers associations and PTAs.
County government agencies would pay a lower fee than nonprofit cultural, recreational, community improvement organizations and civic groups.
The highest fees would be paid by commercial, for-profit organizations and groups conducting religious services.
Licata said the school system is not seeking to profit from the use of its building. Even the higher fees, he said, would not fully recover the cost of keeping the buildings open beyond normal school hours.
State law provides for the use of public school facilities by outside groups. Licata said the fees are used to help maintain the buildings and extend their useful life. He said the law allows the schools to charge a reasonable fee for the services.
"My personal opinion," he said, "is that the people will still be getting a real bargain."