Superintendent Decides to Pay for Graduations

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Less than a week after the Montgomery school board authorized the county's largest high school to hold graduation exercises in a church, Superintendent Jerry D. Weast announced yesterday that the school system would pay to hold the ceremony at Comcast Center instead.

Weast's decision removes a potential legal threat from advocates of the separation of church and state. It also reverses a school-system tradition of contributing only a portion of a school's graduation costs -- $2,200 per school, in spring 2006 -- and calling on parents to raise the rest. The school system now pledges to pay the full cost of every 2007 graduation, a sum of $125,000.

Parents at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring said lack of funds had driven them to seek out a church, rather than the comparatively pricey Comcast Center in College Park.

"I think it's a good solution, I think it's a fair solution and, frankly, I think we have to thank the superintendent for biting the bullet and doing the right thing," said David Ottalini, co-president of the school's PTSA.

Last week a divided school board voted with the Blair PTSA and against Weast to allow the school to hold June commencement exercises at Jericho City of Praise, a church in Landover.

Weast and the school board have forbidden schools to use churches as graduation venues since 2005, after complaints, and the superintendent had rejected the school's latest appeal this month.

Blair parents said the church was the most suitable venue available. They said the alternative, the 5,000-seat Show Place Arena in Upper Marlboro, offered far less space than the 10,000-seat church and was comparatively remote from public transportation. Other Montgomery schools have used the arena or DAR Constitution Hall in the District, which is smaller still.

Weast, along with three school board members, opposed the parents, saying the church setting risked offending many in the Blair community with differing spiritual views. But five board members voted with the parents, reasoning that no one could confuse the fundamentally secular message of the ceremony.

There was also the threat of a lawsuit from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a D.C. nonprofit group that urged the school board last week not to allow a church graduation.

Barry W. Lynn, the group's executive director, praised Weast's move as "a very wise, very fair decision that has essentially removed a giant sign saying 'Sue me' from the Blair High School graduation."

Weast said the school system had negotiated with the University of Maryland to allow two schools, Blair and Sherwood High in Sandy Spring, access to Comcast Center for a combined cost of $50,000 to $65,000. Sherwood High had agreed to rent the venue for $37,000 and was raising funds.

The church would not have charged a fee for the Blair graduation, but the school had planned to donate a few thousand dollars.

Board member Sharon Cox, who voted against a church graduation, said that finding "a solution that was equitable" was a relief.

"I absolutely believe that there would have been a lawsuit -- not if, it would have been when -- and we would have spent a lot more money on litigation than this $125,000," she said.

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