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League seeks room to grow


Brian Wilson, like fathers throughout the county who opt for comparable duty in their communities, volunteered to be basketball commissioner this winter for the Elkridge Youth Organization.

That was the start of one big headache. "It's no wonder that people don't stay in these jobs," he said one afternoon last week. "It's so frustrating. You get burned out. But it'd be a lot better if we could just get some cooperation from the school system. They just make basketball very difficult."

His pain relates to EYO's resurgent growth. The club, which nearly collapsed two years ago for lack of leadership, but then got a transfusion of new volunteers from one of Howard County's fastest-growing areas, saw its basketball enrollment for this winter nearly double, to about 540 children.

That would be headache enough, finding coaches, drafting schedules, wrestling with weather cancellations, dealing with parental concerns and finding and training referees.

But, Wilson said, he expected that kind of involvement. The biggest headache, which many of his counterparts in other youth organizations talk about continually, albeit rarely publicly, involves booking gym time.

EYO, like virtually all youth clubs, relies on the public school system for gyms. The county's recreation department has none. And, as a school management consultant noted two years ago, there's a bad rub. The schools' staffing and method of booking gym space for non-school programs haven't changed significantly in years. But demands for school space have exploded from basketball programs needing gyms and from other groups, as well.

The consultant recommended shifting responsibility for booking school gyms and fields to the Department of Recreation and Parks, which is done in many other counties. That recommendation apparently resides now on a dusty shelf.

Still, Wilson's headache is symptomatic of that larger problem.

He said he filed his applications for gym time in December with the school system. Then, he acknowledged, he fumbled when he applied again to the school system for gym permits last month, when league play begins in earnest.

"We asked for what we had gotten in December, and that wasn't any more than we had last year. But the applications for January were supposed to be filed by Oct. 1," Wilson said, his voice rising. "I didn't know that. But we weren't even finished with registration for basketball. We didn't know how many kids we'd have, so I didn't get the applications in until early October."

And when precious gym time was allocated, Wilson found that he had lost space for last month, despite a thriving interest in basketball in Elkridge.

"We have 64 teams but just 95 hours of gym time, and we're trying to be a two-night-a-week program," Wilson said. "There would seem to be enough gym space, with all the schools in our area. But we've never had access to Rockburn Elementary School. We get Mayfield Woods one night a week. We get Bonnie Branch Middle School two hours a week."

Mayfield Woods Middle School and Rockburn both pull heavily from relatively new subdivisions of townhouses and single-family homes that constitute the new, greater Elkridge.

It is galling, Wilson said, to see the Ellicott City-based Howard County Youth Program's teams at Mayfield Woods - actually in Waterloo, south of Elkridge on Columbia's eastern edge - several times a week. HCYP operates one of the county's two largest youth basketball programs, three times the size of EYO's latest head count.

Wilson was one of a small group of youth leaders who met recently to discuss mutual problems with the Department of Recreation and Parks acting as facilitator. Booking gyms, as well as fields, with public schools was one topic all want to discuss, said Al Harden, a rec department executive working with the group.

"I don't know what we can do," Harden said, "but it's definitely a subject they want to take on."

The rec department is a consumer of school gym space, too; in fact, it is the school system's largest single customer. While Harden was circumspect about booking problems, his boss, Gary J. Arthur, the rec department head, has said publicly the agency also gets headaches sometimes from school system facilities.

Chuck Parvis, who is in charge of booking space for the school system, has heard this debate for years and repeatedly gives the same suggestions. They include getting groups such as EYO to ask for specific schools, which he said EYO has not done; expanding hours for programs, instead of asking for time between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and adding hours on weekends, for which the school system charges more.

Parvis also repeats school system policy of not allocating gyms to groups on a geographical basis. The argument against that, he said, is that all groups are county taxpayers and, thus, get an equal shot at all public facilities.

"Maybe the groups should get together and talk with rec-and-parks about getting gym space built on some of the land it owns. That would help," Parvis said.

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