Legislators should back charging fees for school-fields use

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DESPITE WHAT you might have read last week, the Howard County public school system's quest to charge amateur sports groups (and nonsports groups as well) for using its fields, gyms and other facilities isn't dead yet.

Nor should it be.

The county's delegation to the General Assembly merely talked last week about a school board-backed bill that would allow the school system to pass along relevant expenses that would be applied to field maintenance and scheduling those dozens of facilities.

The delegation has not voted down the bill - although it might - for this year's General Assembly.

As colleague Larry Carson reported from Annapolis, there is little stomach - this year, at least - among a majority of the eight Howard County delegates and three state senators for tweaking state law in a way that merely would enable the school system to proceed.

"Personally, I favor going ahead to work something out," said Columbia Del. Neil Quinter, a Kings Contrivance village resident who chairs the local delegation to the House. "But a number of members of the delegation were very concerned about equity issues."

That's political double-talk for whether youth groups might price some kids out of sports because the groups would have to pass along to parents any new expense related to using school fields.

One leader's thoughts

At least one local sports leader, Savage Boys & Girls Club President Tom Lawler, expressed that fear during a delegation hearing just before Christmas. Lawler's group serves the part of the county represented by Quinter, who has children in programs in Savage, and Del. Shane Pendergrass, who also expressed doubts about the bill.

Lawler, though, was the only such leader to raise such a concern, and he did it well. But the truth is, several other amateur sports groups backed the measure, although most didn't bother to show up last month.

Why we're asking

Now, several thoughts:

We assume the school board would use the power it is seeking. But how much to charge and who would be charged would be determined after hearings later, under the concept being pushed by Courtney Watson, the school board chairman. Seems fair and logical enough.

But then Sen. Ed Kasemeyer said in an interview he doesn't favor the bill now because he doesn't understand how such a system would work and he doesn't trust the school leadership.

Great.

No one knows how much might be charged, but, in truth, some thousands of dollars per sports season might become the issue down the road. How much impact that cost would have per athlete or family or sports group is conjecture at the moment. Maybe the amount would be onerous; maybe not.

So, we ask why the delegation is so reticent because whatever money is involved would be generated locally, not from state coffers, for strictly local use.

We ask because Howard County has home rule, the ability to govern its own, parochial affairs. And this issue is mainly about grass seed, fertilizer, mowing, moving dirt and scheduling of facilities; it doesn't get much more parochial.

We ask because why not let the locally elected Howard County school board deal with the heat of adding expenses to volunteer groups?

And we ask because school policy-makers have a history of not caring a whit about maintaining, especially, fields used after hours by nonschool groups - even though those groups are reliant on those fields. Maybe attitudes are bending.

Bottom line: This issue isn't going away. So, dear delegation members, how about relenting and doing your job, which in this case would seem merely to enable the school system do its thing?

Along the sidelines

VANDALISM: The Worthington section of Ellicott City lost a perfectly good, new soccer/football/lacrosse field a couple of weeks ago because of some jerk.

The grass field, carved out by the county's Department of Recreation and Parks and across the street from its dog park, off New Cut Road, was being readied for first play this spring. That is, until that jerk thought it would be cool to take his (or her) awesome, four-wheel-drive vehicle for spins in the mud - round and round and round, ruining the field.

Regrading will cost maybe $4,000, said John Byrd, the parks director. Parks people would love to know if you can offer clues about who might be responsible. Call 410-313-4711 if you can help.

FAME: The Department of Recreation and Parks has begun seeking nominees to a new hall of fame for countians who have had a substantive community impact on amateur sports here. They're thinking organizers and leaders, more than athletes.

Under longtime administrator Allan Harden's guidance, the department has chosen a committee to select nominees whose achievements will be permanently noted at the agency's headquarters.

You can find a form on the agency's Web site, www.hcrpsports.com. Or you can call the department, 410-313-4711.

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