Prince George’s schools charge PTAs that use buildings

December 15, 2013

The John Hanson Montessori Parent Teacher Student Association has offered after-school dance and chess lessons for years, believing that the enrichment programs help engage Prince George’s County students. The group charges a small fee to pay the course instructors, and until now had been using space at the school for free.

Or so the PTSA thought. Nicole Nelson, the PTSA’s vice president, said she recently received a bill from the school district asking for $2,502.70 in rental fees. Nelson believed it had to be a mistake, as the PTSA has barely $1,500 in its treasury, money it plans to use to honor teachers and to celebrate graduates.

“We were definitely shocked because we are trying to work as partners with the school system,” Nelson said. “We are just trying to get students to take part in programs at a convenient time for their parents.”

It turns out, as Nelson discovered, that the county’s administrative rules allow the school system to charge organizations, including PTAs, for using a school building whenever the group charges a fee for an event, even if the group doesn’t make much of a profit.

Max Pugh, a spokesman for the school system, said the administrative procedure has been in place since 1994. The school system made minor changes to the rules earlier this year, but the system has always been able to charge groups such as the PTA, Girl Scouts and civic organizations for using school facilities.

“I don’t know if the principal wasn’t aware before but they should have been charged since 1994 if [the group] charged fees for an after-school program,” Pugh said.

Billing PTAs is an unusual practice in the Washington region. PTAs in Fairfax and Arlington counties, for example, do not pay a rental fee for sponsoring after-school educational programs, according to school officials. In Arlington, if the primary purpose to use the building is to raise funds, the group is charged a reduced rental fee.

Bart Lawrence, the president of the Hyattsville Elementary PTA, said he has recently “heard some grumbling” about the rules. His organization, which provides an after-school art enrichment program for $10 a week, has not received a bill from the school system.

Lawrence said he understands charging a PTA to use a facility on a weekend, when no custodial staff is on duty. But he does not think it makes sense to bill a volunteer parent group for after-school activities while custodial staff is still on duty.

“What is the county going to get out of charging PTAs?” he asked. “It will effectively kill all of them because they can’t pay for it.”

Nelson said her PTSA began offering ballet and hip hop dance lessons three years ago. It charges $39 a month for the class. Chess has been taught off and on for a dozen years, and it carries a fee of $20 a month. This year, the PTSA started creative writing with a fee of $64 for eight weeks.

Five percent of what the instructor charges goes to the John Hanson PTSA, posting a relatively tiny profit for the group. But Nelson said the reason the programs exist is to fill a void.

“The only reason why we implemented the dance program is [the school system] cut it out of our curriculum and students still wanted to take dance,” she said.

Earnest L. Moore, president of the county’s Parent and Teachers Association Council, said he was aware of the policy and is working with the local associations to make sure they adhere to the rules. But he also said he has scheduled a meeting with school officials to clarify procedures.

Nelson said she hopes that the PTAs and school system can come to a resolution that does not negatively impact children.

“If the PTAs cannot sponsor enrichment programs, I hope the school system can bring in programs that mirror what we have in place,” Nelson said. “If we can’t do business as usual, I hope they have alternatives in place so the students don’t miss out on the benefits of the programs.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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