Leagues must step up to the plate in fee debate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

SO, THAT cranky power trip Howard County's delegation to the General Assembly is exercising over the county school system's desire to pass along some ball field-related expenses grinds along.

Listen up, please, you leaders of all those amateur soccer, baseball, softball, flag football, rugby and lacrosse groups. Really, you can't afford to sit quiet much longer unless you also agree to stop grumbling to anyone who'll listen, which you've done for years, about lousy fields. For the first time, maybe ever locally, you have a politician willing to think, listen and speak up for change in amateur athletics.

"I need now to hear from the sports leagues," said Courtney Watson, the school board chairman, who broached the fee-recovery concept last month as a way of addressing a problem of poor maintenance of school fields that has been festering for years. "Do they want to do this or not?

"I mean, we can keep doing what we've been doing, which is cutting maintenance because of our budgetary pressures, and the quality of fields will continue down."

If that sounds threatening, Watson didn't say it with that tone. We think she's shooting straight.

So far, several groups are on record as favoring the fee concept. One doesn't. But most of the couple of dozen groups representing thousands of children have not bothered to get engaged in this political process.

Proposal seems dead

We wrote here last Sunday that there still might be hope for the school board's proposed change in state law -- to merely allow it to recoup those expenses -- to be granted in this year's General Assembly. Today, though, with a delegation vote expected this week, the proposal seems dead for 2005. It is likely to resurface next year.

That was Watson's estimation after she and Superintendent Sidney L. Cousin, with backing from County Executive James N. Robey, visited legislators Wednesday in Annapolis to re-state their case.

Unlike their first presentation, just after Thanksgiving in Ellicott City, Watson and Cousin gave legislators numbers to chew on, which the Great Annapolis Folks had requested.

Hypothetically, Watson emphasized in a subsequent interview, it could cost parents about $17.50 more per sports season for their child (or in some cases themselves) to play on better, safer fields.

"It was an exercise they had asked us to do, so we did it," said Watson, "but we really don't know what the actual figure might be. We used one typical youth baseball team and what the Department of Recreation and Parks charges for using its fields [$12 an hour] to get that estimate."

The board's bill before the delegation contains no numbers; it is a legal housekeeping measure to let the elected school board in a county with home rule take up the stickier but highly parochial issues of how much and whom to charge.

Watson vows that the board and sports groups would meet subsequently to hash out an equitable fee structure. No state or tax money would be involved.

'We want ... a solution'

But enough of our 11 legislators, who in theory should have little interest in such a setup, still balk. Several, particularly Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, buy an argument that adding fees might deprive youngsters, particularly in the Laurel-Savage area, of chances to play sports.

The sentiment is easy to grasp, but we question its validity.

Most, if not all, youth sports groups in this county say they have ways to ensure any child who wants to play a roster spot. The county's largest group, the Soccer Association of Columbia-Howard County, even recruits such players, raising "scholarship" money through an annual golf tournament.

Further, there must be negotiable ways to soften the impact on truly needy families -- say, waiving the county's fee for any child who receives subsidized school lunches. But beyond that, we can't recall ever hearing -- not once in a dozen or so years of youth sports and scouting -- a parent say, "No way, we won't let a poor kid on our team or unit."

Better, we submit, is taking Watson at face value when she says, "We want to work out a solution. We really do. But we need the sports leagues to help us."

Watson can be called at 410-531-7984.

Along the sidelines

LACROSSE: Drew Clark, vice president for operations for the always-growing Howard County Lacrosse program, wants parents to make sure their kids are registered for the spring season.

"We're ahead of pace, historically, already, so we need to know very quickly who wants to play, because we're running out of space, and we need to get coaches in line," Clark said.

Registration forms can be picked up at Play It Again Sports at St. Johns Lane and U.S. 40 in Ellicott City or from the group's Web site, www. hclp.8m.com.

Call the writer at 410-332- 6525 or send e-mail to lowell.sunderland@ baltsun.com.

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