School facilities policy faces scrutiny | News

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Some Gloucester School Committee members say there’s room for improvement in the schools’ policies and procedures to rent out school buildings to outside groups.

This became an issue in February when a new nondenominational congregation, Freedom Church, was approved to rent out the cafeteria and a couple of classrooms at Beeman Memorial Elementary School for services on four Sundays over the spring and summer.

The arrangement sparked concerns on social media, with questions about the separation of church and state and safety, though some commenters had no problems with the arrangement.

But the church rental brought into focus the need to update how the School Department handles such arrangements.

“It’s like 20 years ago we did a policy and now we are back 20 years later,” said Mayor Greg Verga during a March 23 School Committee meeting. Verga sat on the School Committee when the policy was drafted, and now he’s back on the committee as mayor. He said it’s obvious there are many omissions in the policy, “so it’s time to review.”

Legal standing

“We know what our responsibilities are to whoever requests a rental,” said School Committee member Melissa Teixeira Prince, chairperson of the Building and Finance Subcommittee, during the meeting.

She outlined the results of a March 15 subcommittee meeting that looked at a number of topics, such as whether the cost for utilities should be reflected in the usage fees, which the she said appear to be too low and may not even cover costs.

The subcommittee plans to meet April 11 to discuss, among other things, building usage fees, how school facilities are rented, parking requirements, whether there needs to be an application fee, whether approvals would benefit from more input, and whether the schools need to require, not just recommend, liability insurance.

“We can’t refuse a rental based on who they are,” said Teixeira Prince, speaking in general terms, “because that seems to be the topic of the conversation lately by the emails we are getting. So, we know where we stand legally with that, but how we do rentals clearly needs to be addressed.”

Among other users, the policy states school facilities will be available to “metropolitan civic, educational, social and religious organization activities.”

Teixeira Prince said in an interview she went through three years of rental agreements going back about five years, and could not find long-term rentals with the exception seasonal sports and the YMCA after-school program, which is charged $75 per day by the Department of Public Works, according Mark Cole, Public Work’s assistant director of budget and administration. Examples of rentals this year are PTO events, Cape Ann Youth Basketball and Special Olympics.

Requests to rent school space first goes through the principal, then there is coordination between the school administration and Public Works, which charges custodial fees and arranges those needs. The School Committee is not involved nor does it approve rental requests.

Updating fees

“We also learned that our rental fees are pretty much outdated,” Teixeira Prince said.

According to the fee schedule, community groups and nonprofits are charged less than commercial ones. Fees vary according to the rental’s length and the type of facility being requested.

School groups are permitted without charge, though “custodial fees may apply.”

The present fee for a community group/nonprofit to rent a classroom is $10 per two-hour block. The fee is capped at two times the listed rate. The fee for community groups/nonprofits to rent a cafeteria is $25 per two-hour block.

For custodians, Public Works charges $40 an hour Monday through Saturday and $50 an hour on Sundays and holidays.

According to the school department, the building usage fee is $80 a day, or $320 for four days. This does not include custodial costs.

Beverly Public Schools charges usage fees to performance groups, private schools, civic and for-profit groups and churches and there are a range of fees depending on the type of facility. Costs are $50 an hour for a classroom, and $100 an hour for a cafeteria. The custodial fee is $45 an hour, with extra charged on Sundays and holidays.

Rockport schools charge groups $25 for classrooms, and a cafeteria costs $75, with rates based on a four-hour usage, with additional time billed hourly.

In Rockport, custodial fees are required if no custodian is regularly scheduled or if the event takes him or her away from regular duties. “Custodial fees are charged at the overtime rate of the custodian who bids the job,” Rockport’s policy states. “A bill will be sent following the use of the building, at a rate of $40 per hour.”

Rockport also charges a nonrefundable $10 processing fee per application.

Kody Aten, lead pastor of Freedom Church, and a Beeman parent, said he listened to a portion of the most recent School Committee meeting, and said it make sense to make tweaks to the policy.

“Everybody’s been great,” he said.

Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-675-2714, or eforman@northofboston.com.

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