Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Blair graduation costs tied to other schools

Fee could reach $13,000 unless Comcast Center shared

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Although Montgomery Blair High School may need to pay more to hold its graduation at the Comcast Center next year, county officials said they were working on reducing costs for larger schools that have few choices for venues.

Administrators at the Silver Spring school say Blair’s graduating classes are too large to fit in the District’s DAR Constitution Hall, the arena paid for in full by the county, forcing both the school system and large high schools like Blair to find suitable alternatives.

The Comcast Center, however, is much more expensive than any other venue approved by the county, forcing either the schools or the county school system to pay for the difference.

The estimated contribution of schools that select the University of Maryland facility as their commencement location next year is a maximum of $13,000 per school, said Stephen L. Bedford, the chief school performance officer with Montgomery County Public Schools. But that cost could be reduced significantly if two or even three graduations are scheduled at Comcast Center on the same day, he said. Blair was asked to contribute $5,000 for use of the center last year, paid for mainly through fees charged to the senior class.

‘‘From the beginning, the PTSA has proposed, recommended, suggested that MCPS work out a date that could get them the best possible pricing,” said David Ottalini, Blair’s former PTSA co-president who works at the University of Maryland. ‘‘And they are finally listening.”

Bedford said the school system’s fiscal 2009 budget, which was comparable to the 2008 budget, includes $29,000 for each of the four high schools with the largest number of incoming seniors to help subsidize graduations at the Comcast Center. Those schools include Winston Churchill, Sherwood, Wootton and Blair.

If the school system manages to schedule three graduations in one day, the cost to the schools would be between $3,000 and $4,000, Bedford said. The schools have until July 31 to submit their requests on when and where they would like to hold their graduations, knowing that they may be forced to raise up to $13,000 apiece.

‘‘It’s about trying to figure out a way to negotiate this to ensure that we can keep the cost down,” said school board member Christopher S. Barclay (Dist. 4) of Takoma Park. ‘‘We’re in tight financial times.”

The school system paid much more for Blair’s last graduation. Mickey Webb, program manager for the department of conferences and visitors service for the University of Maryland, said the cost of renting the Comcast Center for Blair’s 2008 graduation on June 11 was nearly $55,000.

Bedford said the school system was able to pay for Blair’s graduation because it saved money elsewhere. Only two other high schools besides Blair used the center, he said, and both held their commencements on the same day.

Bedford said it would be easier to schedule the graduations to save money this year because the available dates fall during the week. Blair’s graduation last month was on a Friday, and the school system did not schedule multiple ceremonies into the evening due to Jewish Sabbath.

‘‘In this day and age of budget concerns and fiscal concerns, it’s just an outrageous amount of money,” Bedford said of the Comcast Center.

The county would cover the entire cost of graduation at DAR Constitution Hall, according to a memo from Bedford sent to high school principals June 20, but that 3,700-seat venue is too small for Blair, said Principal Darryl Williams. Blair, the county’s largest school, has about 2,800 students.

The estimated number of people at the school’s graduation on June 11 was nearly 10,000, Williams said. The more than 600 seniors at the ceremony received 10 tickets apiece. Many requested additional tickets, he said.

‘‘I’m hoping we can work out something that so we wouldn’t have to pay the $13,000,” Williams said. ‘‘Otherwise, I’m not sure what we’d do. ... Raise some money, or upping the class dues. ... We’d have to make some decisions.”

Blair has also held graduations at the Show Place Arena⁄Equestrian Center in Prince George’s County and the Jericho City of Praise, a Landover church that seats about 10,000 and offered its venue to the school for free. Blair used Jericho for three years until the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said using the church was inappropriate, despite parents’ insistence that the ceremony was secular.

Despite a Board of Education vote that gave Blair permission to use the church, the school system decided instead to pick up the rental costs at the Comcast Center to avoid future problems. Kate Harrison, a county public schools spokeswoman, said ‘‘it was clear” that the church was not an option for future graduations.

‘‘Once again, this really points out the need for us to have some kind of facility in Montgomery County,” Ottalini said.

Silver Spring resident Ann Collins, a parent of an incoming senior, said parents were disappointed that the school was battling again for a suitable graduation site. The issue was not only a Blair issue, she said, but one with which all the large high schools in the county struggled.

‘‘I think that they need to make a really sincere effort to find a venue for the large high schools,” Collins said. ‘‘They need to take care of their large schools.”