An unlevel playing field

School Board members cry foul on facility policy

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— A revised version of the Steamboat Springs School District's Facilities and Grounds Use Policy is intended to even the playing field for facility users, but several aspects of the policy have School Board members crying foul.

Among the most controversial inclusions is a $5 fee for teachers who use their classrooms for tutoring; requiring that a school district employee be on site if the facility is to be used; and a separate user policy for Gardner Field, the district's new artificial turf field that was funded by private donations and an Education Fund Board gift.

The Fund Board administers revenue from the city's half-cent sales tax for education.

During Monday's meeting, School Board members discussed the revised facilities policy for more than 30 minutes with Rick Denney, district facilities director, and Superintendent Donna Howell, before directing Denney to go back and review several of their concerns.

"What I'm hearing from people is that maybe we would like the policy to be reviewed to see if we could make it friendlier or easier for some groups to access the facilities," School Board President Denise Connelly said.

But making district facilities easier and less inexpensive to use is at the root of the revisions, Denney said. He consulted with the School Board's attorney, Richard Lyons, before presenting the revised policy to the board Monday. Denney said much of the revised policy language was based on advice from Lyons.

Tutoring teeter-totter

No aspect of the facility use policy elicited as much emotion Monday as the potential tutoring fee.

According to the revised policy, teachers who charge families a tutoring fee for working with students outside of school hours would have to pay the district $5 for use of school facilities.

It was a suggestion that nearly made board member John DeVincentis, a former principal at Strawberry Park Elementary School, jump out of his seat.

"What in God's name is the reason for the $5 fee for tutoring?" DeVincentis asked. "When I told my mother that, she laughed out loud. She thought I was kidding. Seeing that, to me, is disgraceful - that we would charge teachers money for working with a student in their classroom when many are there until 10:30 at night."

Although the district's administrative team approved the tutoring fee, Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Tim Bishop said he did not support it. But Bishop also acknowledged he's not sure whether there are legal ramifications necessitating such a fee.

"As for teachers using their rooms for private gain (tutoring after school), I would say that such a use is technically not permitted because it is not a community use," Lyons wrote in a memo. "However, the flip side of that is that it does serve a direct educational purpose. My fear would be that these outfits like Sylvan Learning Centers or GradesUP or other similar organizations would want that same deal as the teacher. So, although it might be winked at now, everyone should be aware that it could lead to (the) argument, 'How come they get to do it and we can't?' which would be difficult to answer."

Several members of the School Board weren't satisfied with Lyons' reasoning.

"I think there's a little bit of leeway here in what our attorney did tell us," Connelly said. "I think that's a common feeling. We'd like to see that not being applied if we can get away from that, legally, and I probably think we can."

Paying for supervision

Howell said she's most concerned with the safety and security of district staff and students, which is one reason why the revised facilities policy states that a custodian or other district supervisor must be present if a school building is being used outside of normal school hours. Howell said the stipulation is to ensure the security of the building and to help in cases of emergencies.

Custodians frequently are on site after school hours, Howell said, but if a district facility were being used on weekends or other times when school is out, the district would have to pay for supervisors to monitor the buildings. The district also could make the user group pay for the cost of a supervisor.

Regardless, Howell said the district must treat all facility users the same.

"If you don't charge the soccer association for a custodian, how can you charge others?" Howell asked. "You have to have an equitable process, or do we pay for the custodian for every group who uses the facility?"

School Board members agreed the district has to cover its cost of allowing outside groups to use the buildings, but board members didn't agree on the need for them to provide facility supervisors.

"We have facilities that sit vacant for three months a year," said board member Jeff Troeger, who asked that the board re-examine the policy that district property not be used during vacations. "We should try to open it up as much as possible. Make sure we cover our costs. Make sure we cover custodial costs. The way it's worded, if we can't provide the services, then no one can. I think we should be opening up those gyms in the summertime as long as we cover the costs."

Connelly suggested having user groups pay a deposit and prepare a written arrangement to ensure their responsibility for the safety and security of the district building and the groups' participants.

"I think there are some things we can look at to consider the goodwill that might come from having groups use our facilities," Connelly said.

For example, the middle school is one of the district's most heavily used facilities, particularly by outside groups such as the city of Steamboat Springs and AAU teams. The city's indoor soccer league's games don't typically end until 11:30 p.m. during the week.

"We have a custodian here until 10:30 p.m.," Bishop said. "That last hour we have an arrangement with Parks and Rec that someone locks up the building when they leave."

Be fair to all

The city is one of the district's most reliable and heaviest facility users. But the school district also has a special relationship with the city in terms of using its facilities, Howell said. The two entities track usage and fees. Susan Petersen, recreation supervisor for the city, said the city typically ends up paying the district at the end because the city uses district facilities more often.

"It's the best we can do considering limited facilities," Petersen said. "We would love to be in the facilities more, but we pretty much use every hour they make available to us. I think a lot of people assume that the schools aren't being used enough."

Currently, Gardner Field isn't one of the district's facilities used by the city. On Monday, the special administration of the artificial turf field came under question.

Unlike other district grounds or facilities, Gardner Field has a separate Advisory Board, which oversees the user requests and advises the district about which groups can use the artificial turf field and when they can use it.

The turf at Gardner Field is relatively new, so the Advisory Board has been around for only about six months.

Howell cautioned against assuming the Advisory Board was in charge.

"They have a say on recommendations, but they don't control it," Howell said, adding that the group that helped fundraise and build the artificial turf field wanted a say in managing its use.

First, Gardner Field is to be used for district needs. Second, it is for community groups such as youth soccer or lacrosse. After those groups, other users will be considered.

"I wrote this policy long before Gardner Field was in existence," Denney noted. "I did pick it up in the rate structure that does identify a special approval process as opposed to other fields."

The base cost is $41 to use Gardner Field, but there are additional costs for using the bleachers, restrooms, lights and other parts of the facility.

As is the case with all district facilities, there are three levels of usage, including Level 1, which is reserved for youth groups such as the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and the Steamboat Springs Youth Soccer Association.

Level 1-usage fees currently are waived.

"Don't put in a waiver of fees," Lyons suggested. "That leads to claims of discrimination as to why you waived fees. Charge everyone/organization per the established fee schedule. If they fall within the right fee schedule grouping, they won't have to pay very much."

Groups must apply annually for Level 1 status, and those groups still would be charged fees for clean up and other district expenses.

Denney said he would take a look at the policy per the board's suggestion, but it was his understanding from Lyons that the district enforce the policy uniformly between the schools and sites for liability and safety and to avoid perceptions of favoritism.

- To reach Melinda Mawdsley, call 871-4208 or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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