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Rules of the game: Haywood firms up its facilities-use policy

fr schoolfacilitiesYouth sports teams will no longer be able to trade bags of fertilizer, free coffee for teachers or a fresh coat of paint on the dugout for use of the practice fields, stadiums and gyms of Haywood County Schools.

There are dozens of youth sports teams and clubs — from cheerleading teams to Bible clubs to soccer leagues — that aren’t affiliated with public schools. Yet they rely on the schools’ fields, classrooms, stadiums and gyms to meet, practice and host games.

Historically, principals cut deals with individual groups as they saw fit in exchange for the use of school facilities.

“The problem they got into was equity. It was done on in-kind agreements,” said Mark Sheppard, Haywood County Schools Academic Support Director. “It went all the way from ‘I want you to mow my yard all year long’ to ‘I want a new scoreboard.’”

Haywood County Schools has overhauled its policy for outside groups that use school facilities. Now, mandatory, uniform rates will be charged to any youth-related organization, regardless of the school.

“I think it is a move forward for fairness,” Sheppard said.

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An earlier version of the policy considered last summer was rejected by some school board members, however, as being too costly for youth sports teams. The policy was sent back to the drawing board. A revised version with lower fees for local, youth-related, non-profit groups was approved unanimously by school board members this month. 

“I didn’t want to put the youth leagues out of business. The way it came in to begin with, it was really going to be expensive for some of the youth leagues,” said Larry Henson, a school board member. “I do think they can live with what we’ve got now.”

For the Waynesville Mountaineers Youth Football and Cheerleading club, the new fees of a few hundred dollars a year will be more than they are used to. In the past, they made a monetary donation to the Haywood Schools “needy athletic fund” in exchange for holding daily practice on the Jonathan Valley Elementary field and hosting games at the stadium at Waynesville Middle.

“We had to go up on fees just a little bit for the kids, and hopefully with some fundraisers we will cover it,” said Lynn Cagle, president of the Waynesville Mountaineers.

Cagle said the fees ultimately imposed are better than the first version rolled out last year.

“If they hadn’t lowered it, there was a possibility we would not have been able to practice. It was absolutely ridiculous,” Cagle said.

The new fee schedule runs from just $3 an hour to use secondary practice fields with no amenities to as much as $200 an hour for stadiums and gyms — which can come with hourly heating bills, night lighting, concession stand use and custodian salaries.

Youth basketball leagues can expect to pay around $3,000 a season, for example, due to their high use of gyms, which are among the most costly to rent.

The cost for youth football teams could vary widely, starting at just a few hundred a year if they play games during the day and don’t use concessions. Night games, which carry a stiff hourly fee for stadium lighting, are considerably more, but to Bethel youth football, it’s worth it — and the donors will step up to support it.

“For them it is a tradition to play in the lights, so they said if it costs them $150 a Saturday then so be it. They’ll pass the hat to do it,” Sheppard said.

Most youth sports teams made some sort of monetary donations to the schools along with in-kind contributions.

But with in-kind services now off the table as a form of payment to the schools, most groups will have to cough up more than they are accustomed to. It was often easier for parents to volunteer to mow fields after work in the evening or to paint the concession stand than to come up with cash.

“The more we have to pay for our practice fields, the more we have to increase our registration fees and that all trickles down to our parents and our kids,” said Audra Bowen, the president of AYSO in Haywood County, a youth soccer league.

But Bowen said she understands the need for uniform rates.

“It used to be the principals had jurisdiction over how they wanted to do it. They may say ‘OK, you can use our fields this year if you buy our teachers a year’s worth of coffee,’” Bowen said. “They do have organizations that were told ‘Just get us fertilizer’ and they were making thousands of dollars off the use of their field.”

Teams that pitched in with in-kind services to help take care of fields will still be welcome to do so.

“It is not going to reduce your rate. It will just enhance your use of the field,” Sheppard said.

School Board Member Steven Kirkpatrick said some teams will likely still help spruce up fields, particularly before hosting home games.

“Most teams are still going to take care of it because they know the other team is coming in and they want it to look good,” Kirkpatrick said.

Sheri Wilson, the cheerleading coordinator for Bethel Youth Sports, said youth sports make a positive contribution to the community.

“It is about bringing together the community and the people that support the kids,” said Wilson.


Across the board

The new guidelines have been almost two years in the making. It was a challenging prospect. The fees had to be high enough for the schools to cover their costs, but not so high that it was out-of-reach for volunteer-run youth sports leagues.

Calculating the costs wasn’t easy. How much electricity do stadium lights burn an hour? How do you quantify wear and tear to a gym floor?  How much water does the average concession stand use during a game?

And if a gym, cafeteria or auditorium are being leased, the fee has to cover the hourly cost of a school custodian to unlock the building and remain on the grounds until the event is over.

School board members commended Sheppard for his work on the policy. Sheppard said it was important to tackle given flaws in the old system — the biggest being the variation from school to school. 

“We were seeing that within the same user group, you are charging vastly different prices,” Sheppard said.

That could make schools vulnerable to criticism of preferential treatment for some groups over others.

“We didn’t want to wait until we got sued to deal with it.”

It was also tricky to quantify a monetary value of in-kind services, which made those kinds of trades subjective.

The school system was also potentially open to criticism that county taxpayers were subsidizing outside groups, clubs and teams. If the deal struck with the principal wasn’t enough to cover the hard costs associated with using the facilities, it meant taxpayers were essentially footing the bill for private, outside groups to use public facilities.

School principals aren’t thrilled about the new policy, however. Before, they could funnel donations or in-kind services toward whatever specific needs they had within their school.

Now, the fees will be shared with the school maintenance department, with 60 percent of the fees going to the school system maintenance budget and 40 percent to the individual schools.

“That’s a point of contention,” Sheppard admitted. “Principals have enjoyed having those little bit of extra funds. But if I am maintenance director trying to maintain the schools, I want all of that. If I am a principal trying to run a small school, I want all of it.”


Opening the door

Youth sports teams, by far, use school facilities more than any other type of outside group. But the new policy applies to a wide range of organizations wanting to use everything from school auditoriums to cafeterias to libraries.

The Haywood County Cattlemen’s Association holds its annual beef roast at Tuscola High School, for example. The Haywood County Democratic Party has its fall rally at Pisgah’s football field. Start-up church congregations have even used school auditoriums for their Sunday services while building a permanent home.

The earlier version of the policy — the one deemed too high for youth-related organizations — had proposed the same rate for all nonprofits.

But youth teams that practice several hours a week and hold day-long tournaments several times a season are a different beast than the one-time use of a facility by a non-profit for a special event.

In the revised version, Sheppard created a separate category for “local youth-related activities” that’s lower than the general non-profit rate. The discounted rate applies not just to youth sports but to any local youth organization.

“If I want to have a week-long camp of Junior Appalachian Musicians, then I want a decent deal on facilities as well,” Sheppard pointed out.

The new policy will allow for-profit entities to use school facilities for a fee for the first time. The old policy didn’t allow for-profit groups to use school facilities.

The fees for for-profits are three times higher than the fees for nonprofits, with a school auditorium costing $75 an hour instead of $25, for example, or a school kitchen costing $60 an hour instead of $20, not counting additional custodial rates.

The most anticipated type of for-profit entity wanting to lease school facilities will mostly likely be traveling ball tournaments. In fact, that was one reason the school system revised its facility policy in the first place. County commissioners wanted venues for hosting traveling tournaments, which have an economic benefit due to visiting out-of-town families.

But everything from karate studios to dance companies may want to rent gyms and auditoriums to host exhibitions, and could now do so, Sheppard said.

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