New school facility rental policy to be developed

(Robert Ross photo)

The Sarasota County School Board members concurred during their April 17 work session on the need for the schools to cover their costs, but not collect profits, for renting facilities.

They asked district Chief Operating Officer Scott Lempe and Facilities Director Jody Dumas to work with other staff to develop a new policy that would allow nonprofit organizations to avoid booking fees and provide for a lower fee for one-time bookings, compared to multiple bookings of a facility, than the district has been charging.

Moreover, the board members suggested the policy provide a separate category of costs for commercial entities that are providing services to students, such as tutoring firms.

Both Chairwoman Caroline Zucker and board member Frank Kovach said they felt the district should not charge for use of its facilities.

“I think they ought to be available as much as possible,” Kovach said. “They’re not our facilities. They were paid for by the taxpayer … and I find it quite discouraging that we’re making a profit on (the rentals).”

Lempe pointed out that any funds schools earned from rentals, after covering the cost of staff services and utilities, did not come back into the district’s general fund. The schools use that money for a variety of legitimate purposes, he added, including FCAT preparation materials and “for buying shoes for kids that don’t have shoes.”

Superintendent Lori White pointed out that from a principal’s perspective, any funds left over after costs were not “profits.” Somebody on staff at a school had to execute the rental contract, she said, as well as meet the individuals arriving to use the facility for the first time — so they knew where their room was, for example — and assist the renters with any other needs it had.

Kovach replied that he understood that, but “this isn’t the principal’s school.”

White also acknowledged the district had received complaints over the years about schools taking different viewpoints on the booking fees. A revised policy would remedy that situation, she noted. “I just want the board to be aware that we’re trying to have a system that’s more justifiable.”

“I think we should charge just what our costs are,” Zucker said.

“I just think that we ought to do as much as we possibly can to make these rates low and reasonable,” board member Jane Goodwin said.

“I agree with Frank that we shouldn’t make a profit on the rentals,” board member Carol Todd added. However, she said, if the district were to maintain a policy of allowing the public to use its facilities, it needed to cover the cost of making sure those facilities were clean when students returned to them after they were rented to outside groups.

“I don’t want to have kindergartners going to school and finding syringes and condoms on the grounds, and we know that that has happened in our schools before,” Todd added.

Board member Shirley Brown said she was concerned about making the rental of school facilities so inexpensive that they would have an unfair advantage in competition with private facilities.

“It’s not an easy, one-size-fits-all answer” in regard to developing a policy, she said.

Lempe proposed the board treat all nonprofit entities the same and all for-private entities the same, in setting up a revised rental policy and fee schedule.

Lempe and Dumas had provided the board a chart showing rental costs for facilities ranging from baseball and softball fields to classrooms and gyms. Under the current policy, Lempe said, a nonprofit organization renting a classroom for four hours pays $230, with $210 of that returned to the district office to cover the cost of utilities.

Under the proposed policy, the annual one-time booking fee for a classroom would cost $155, regardless of how many times over the course of a year the group renting it used the room. That booking fee, Dumas said, covered such costs as cleaning bathrooms and administrative support. The user would pay an extra $52 per hour for air conditioning.

An additional $70 would be charged for working on the rental contract with staff at the school, plus $10 for administrative overhead, Dumas said.

All the various event fees worked out to an hourly base rate of $63, Lempe said.

Those figures more accurately reflected the actual costs to the district for use of the classroom, Dumas said.

When Todd asked whether the district had any mechanism for tracking the utilization of district facilities by specific groups and the condition in which those groups typically left the facilities, Dumas told her, “That’s exactly where we’re going.”

He and his staff, he said, were working on a software program that would allow them to track that usage. Once the program was up and running, he said, staff could accumulate date and report to the board on its findings.

After the board members had that report, Todd said, they would be better prepared to adjust rental rates to ensure the fees were fair.