A recent decision by the Prince George's County school board will prevent private, religious-affiliated schools in the county from using public school facilities for most purposes.
The board let stand a decision by assistant school superintendent Eliott B. Robertson, who is responsible for the use of school facilities. Until last year, applications from private schools to use public school facilities were handled by the individual school principals.
Administrators from the Clinton Christian School and from Independent Baptist Academy, two of the estimated five to 10 private schools in the county affected by the decision, say that the school administration has singled them out.
For at least two years students from Clinton Christian's basketball teams practiced and played their home games at nearby James Madison Junior High School, according to Ray Childress, Clinton's administrator. Independent Academy has used James Ryder Randall elementary for their sports program since 1975.
Last fall Clinton Christian School's application, complete with a check for $1,500 for the year, was rejected, according to Childress, with a letter from Robertson stating that, "public school facilities are not available for private school use."
"It seems strange that two Baptist schools within two or three miles of each other in the Clinton area are catching all this flack where other schools are not," said Bob Kyner, administrator of Independent.
Robertson referred the school's applications to school board counsel Paul Nussbaum for an opinion. In a written opinion reviewed by the board on Dec. 18, Nussbaum said that the private schools were not paying the equivalent of a "market rate" for gym facilities, which are scarce in the county. This could leave the school system open to taxpayer suits charging the schools with subsidising a specific private religious group. Nussbaum said.
"If you were talking about market value, ($1,500) would get you about a week's use, no more," said Robertson.
But even when the administration comes up with a "market rate" fee structure, as Nussbaum recommended, it was Nussbaum's opinion that schools like Clinton Christian and Independent must still be denied use of the public schools because of the terms of the 1973 county school desegregation order. There have been charges that some of the private Christian schools have thrived by enrolling the children of white parents seeking to avoid the 1973 court order.
Naussbaum stressed that it was not his opinion that the schools in question existed purely as havens for whites only, or that their enrollments were now segregated, but concluded that anything that could be perceived as even "subtle" aid to such non-public schools could leave the board vulnerable in any litigation asserting school board action to resegregate the county schools.
"I would says that if a gym was rented for $500 a night I still would hesitate to rent to a school whose growth is basically a post-1973 growth," said Nussbaum, counsel to the school board for 20 years.
For Clinton Christian School, which has been open 14 years, losing the gym rental was a sudden blow to its 800 students. According to Childress, the decision came too late for the school to make alternative plans for the basketball season.
It's really a hardship. We pay our taxes and cannot get the benefit, not even of a public school gymnasium," said Childress, who contends that half of Clinton's student body is black.
Kyner said his school plans to build a gym next year but added, "right now our teams are practicing on the blacktop area behind our school. We have a hard time fielding a team now because so many kids are getting sick."
County council member Sue V. Mills, who disagreed with the school administration's decision, pressed school board chairman Jo Ann Bell to have the school board look into the matter.
Mills and Childress asserted that other church schools were still using public school facilities as part of their regular program, such as the St. John's School, which is Catholic, in Clinton. St. John's, they said, uses the gym at Surrattsville Junior High for its student basketball games.
According to the St. John's administrator, the school has no official sports teams but sponsors an athletic club not restrictd to students at the school. The club is not a part of the regular school program, and as such it would not be affected by the Nussbaum opinion.
There are also cases in which individual private school students take classes in a public school that are not offered in their school. According to Nussbaum, such arrangements benefit the student and not the private school and are also exempt from his opinion.
No board member moved to change the administration's decision after Nussbaum's review of the opinion leading Bell to conclude:
"As far as I was concerned, we were rendering the opinion that had already been given to Childress and Mrs. Mills."