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In an era of constrained school budgets, it is not all that unusual – albeit quite problematic in terms of diversity and equity – to find schools charging students and their parents “activity fees” to offset certain expenses, particularly in extracurricular pursuits, notably athletics. When the Board of Education of the Harford County Public Schools in Maryland voted on June 13 to impose a $100 per student activity fee on extracurricular drama programs in area high schools, and raised the fee charged to sports participants to the same rate (having previously been $50), it wasn’t, at a glance, necessarily seen as a targeted attack on the arts. But there’s much more to it, based on statements made by the school board subsequent to both to this decision and a vocal but failed appeal from drama participants and supporters made at the next school board meeting.

“Titanic” at Bel Air High School (Photo by Chuck Bowden)

According to several members of the community apprised of the plan, which has not yet been formally issued, at Harford schools, students will be charged the fee if they want to perform – offstage participants are exempted, creating two classes of theatre kids. Students will be charged the fee per show, so if they appear in a play in the fall and a musical in the spring, for example, it will cost their parents $200. [see update below]

Unlike sports, the school system has only token funding for extracurricular drama – the programs are all largely self-supporting. So young performers are being taxed a regressive tax if they want even a moment under theatrical lighting in front of an audience, and the money generated goes not so much to defray the cost of productions, but rather to shore up a hole in the Harford budget. Interscholastic sports, on the other hand, have a $2.9 million allocation in the county’s school budget. Indeed, the motion and vote to levy a fee on drama came at the end of a board meeting where county swim teams and their supporters successfully lobbied to save their pursuit in Harford Public Schools.

Why target student performers to raise an estimated $50,000? That’s hard to say, because neither local news reports nor direct inquiry by Arts Integrity has yielded any significant explanation from the people who imposed the fee. An e-mail with questions about the decision, e-mailed to Barbara P. Canavan, superintendent of schools, yielded a reply from Jillian V. Lader, manager of communications for the school system, stating, “The decision to require a participation fee from students involved in the extracurricular drama program was made by the Board of Education of Harford County on Monday, May [sic] 13, 2016.” Ms. Lader then directed Arts Integrity to communicate with the board via a contact form on the district’s website, to which there has been no reply after more than a week. Worth noting: Barbara Canavan is not only the superintendent of schools, but also the secretary/treasurer of the board, and as such was certainly party to the decision process regarding drama. Direct e-mails to several of the board members also received no reply.

Students protest before June 27 Board meeting

Students protest before June 27 board of education meeting (screen capture from ABC2 report)

While the school system was keeping fairly mum about the decision, their actions spurred others to become vocal. Ryan Nicotra, who works at Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theatre, attended Bel Air High School in Harford County and lived in the area for, as he put it, “25 of my 26 years,” has organized the unincorporated Harford County Arts & Culture Alliance in the wake of the board’s initial decision on June 13. Working with students, parents and other advocates, Nicotra mobilized some 250 supporters to attend the June 27 board meeting to advocate against the new fee. According to a report in The Baltimore Sun, “More than 50 Harford County students, parents, teachers, alumni, even school board members, pleaded with the Board of Education Monday to rescind a $100 fee to participate in high school drama programs, but their efforts could not sway board members.”

Later in the article, The Sun reported, “[Board Vice President] Voskuhl, a former Bel Air High principal, stressed HCPS is not alone among school systems in the U.S. for charging student participation fees. At the previous board meeting on June 13, he made the motion to double the sports activity fee and to re-establish the drama fee, which along with other non-sports activity fees approved in 2013 were rescinded by the previous board.” So it appears these fees come and go depending upon who is elected.

Describing a bit of the conversation at the June 27 meeting, Juniper Ernest, a member of the parents’ association for the Bel Air High School drama group and parent of a rising junior and rising freshman at the school, wrote:

“Several of the board members spoke to say that they agreed that the original proposal was in fact a poor and inequitable decision. That it will prove detrimental to students and that they need to provide more opportunities for kids to get involved instead of putting up barriers. One of the board members seemed especially moved hearing from students who expressed what being in a drama company means to them and the impact it has had upon their lives. This board member stated that we can’t keep punishing kids with fees because of our budget deficit.”

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Putnam High School

“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” at Fallston High School

Nicotra is undeterred by the results of the June 27 meeting. He outlined plans being undertaken by his coalition of students, parents and community members, saying, “In the past two or three weeks, I’ve probably made well over 100 phone calls and probably bought 40 cups of coffee. I have been trying to talk to as many parents and teachers as I can, but also partners at the state and national level, people that work with the state department of education, talking with people who have been on the board before and had some valuable insights into the best approach.”

“From a legal standpoint,” Nicotra continued, “we have a small legal team that’s working on a formal appeal to the state board of education, which is qualified and able to overturn a decision made by a local school board if it is either illegal, arbitrary or capricious. We feel that the manner in which the motion was made, passed and upheld indicates that it was an arbitrary decision. It’s murky whether it was also capricious. It’s not illegal; these fees exist here and elsewhere. But that it would be introduced without public comment, or input or even any sort of justification for budget projections indicates that it was put together very quickly.

“We’re also working to see whether this is worthwhile to pursue an equity suit against Harford County board of education because specifically in Harford County there is a huge poverty correlation with race. The schools in Harford County that would be most directly impacted by this and most hurt would be schools that also have disproportionately high minority rates and minority students.”

Also vigorously advocating against the fee is Bel Air High School student Olivia Bowley, a rising junior. In addition to being one of the more than four dozen people who spoke at the June 27 board of education meeting, she wrote an open letter about the situation to Broadway World, which published it on July 5, in which she expressed her concerns over the new policy.

In correspondence with Arts Integrity, Bowley wrote:

“They are estimating $50,000 revenue from pay to play fees from drama. But to be completely honest, that estimate seems unrealistic. There are 10 drama companies in the county. The Bel Air Drama Company, to which I belong, is the most robust of all of them. Our company averages about 100 kids for the year. Many of the other drama companies are still in their infancy or in a rebuilding state, with very little student involvement.

“What is completely frustrating to us is that we are the only ‘club’ being assessed a fee.  There are dozens of clubs in our high school and drama was singled out as the only one to be lumped in with the sports in the ‘pay to play’ fee.”

Regarding specific costs to the schools for drama, Bowley explained:

“I can only speak to our school – Bel Air Drama Company, until recently was self-funded – we would put on productions with the cost of the ticket sales. The only cost the school would incur – outside of the stipend to pay the drama directors (which I believe is $ 2,400 annually, split between two people) would be any associated HVAC costs, etc. for production weeks.

“That being said, for the first time in 2017, the drama company ticket money raised will go to the school and not the drama company.  Previously, the drama company kept those funds and used the proceeds to absorb the costs of the putting on the productions — set, lights, costumes, etc.  For 2017 and going forward, the school will retain the money and will reimburse the drama company for appropriate expenditures associated with putting on a production.  I can tell you that our drama company charges $10-12 per ticket per production.”

While teachers are often precluded from, or cautious about, speaking against student policy, Robert Tucker, the drama teacher and advisor of extracurricular drama programs at Edgewood High School wrote directly to the school board following the initial passage of the fee. His letter read, in part:

“The benefit of the extracurricular drama activities are numerous and varied. Students involved in the arts regularly exhibit higher order thinking skills. The drama programs challenge students to practically apply every subject they student. Mathematics are applied through designing circuits for lighting plots, or designing a sturdy base for a set element. English is utilized when carrying a scene, history for dramaturgy, even FACS are utilized for the creation of costumes.

“I am very concerned about this proposal for several reasons. Chief among them in equity. Along with Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and Joppatowne, this school serves a population with a lower average income and socioeconomic power. This policy would disproportionately affect the schools with the Rt. 40 corridor, and prohibit those programs where they are needed most. Simply, this punishes those who may be too poor to pay $100.”

While the board of education has not officially issued details of their plan, The Sun has noted that with preexisting fees, students who qualify for free student lunches don’t have to pay activity fees. The net result was an increase in the number of high school students applying for free and lower priced lunches. Inevitably, students who don’t quite qualify get caught in between by both lunch costs and the activity fees.

In an e-mail to Arts Integrity, Tucker described the $100 fee as “staggeringly prohibitive.” He asserted, ”There is evidence that pay to play programs stifle participation in extracurricular activities, especially among the economically disadvantaged.”

“Letters From Sala” at Edgewood High School (Photo by Deborah Johnson)

“Letters From Sala” at Edgewood High School (Photo by Deborah Johnson)

Tucker also wrote, “Placing a barrier on participation in extracurricular activities puts students in danger. These groups were the original GSA/LGBTA groups for many students my age and older, providing a safe place for people to identify as themselves. Drama clubs still do this in ways other groups do not.”

Advocacy efforts as described by Nictora are still, in many ways, at their earliest stage. But in addition to what he outlines, a petition seeking to have the activity fee for drama reduced or eliminated was started on Change.org, originated by Taylor Casalena, who just graduated from Harford Technical High School. While it began before the June 27 meeting, it remains active for those who want to express their support for Harford drama and to speak against the activity fee.

Juniper Ernest spoke of both the concerns and the resolve that she sees in the community:

“I am thankful that our family will be able to provide our kids with the fee required so that they can participate. We do know many families at Bel Air and other schools, however, who will not be able to participate if the fees remain. That has caused my daughter and I to take action and speak up. We are advocating on behalf  of other students. We believe that the stage should be accessible to ALL kids, not just those who can afford it. We are so disheartened that our Board of Education thinks it is acceptable to put barriers in the way that would prevent kids from participating in something so vital and worthwhile. We feel very passionately that the arts are something that should be supported and celebrated in our schools and we will not stand idly by while our school system makes cuts to arts programs and discourages kids from experiencing the arts by imposing fees to participate.”

On Wednesday, July 13, Harford Property Services, a business in Havre de Grace, announced that it would cover the activity fees for all students participating in the drama program at Havre de Grace High School, a significant commitment considering that the board of education hasn’t fully detailed how the fees would be levied. In a statement provided to The Baltimore Sun, HPS president J.D. Russell said, “Our students and their families should not be burdened with fees in order to gain the benefit of participating in extra-curricular activities. For many families with two or more school-age children, each participating in multiple programs through the school year, the financial weight is too heavy.” HPS is to be applauded, however there are nine other high schools in the district.

Fundamental questions for the Harford Public Schools board of education remain. How did they decide to levy this tax on drama performers only, leaving other arts programs or for that matter any school activities others than drama and sports untouched? Was there proper notice given of the intent to introduce this fee, to allow for community input, or was it an improperly introduced spur of the moment decision to plug a hole in the school budget? Is it the school board’s intent to progressively add other activities to the roster of those paying fees, transferring school expenses directly to parents of the students who are participating or requiring them to raise money on their own to maintain equity for all students? Since this decision originally came in a meeting that lasted until 12:30 am, and where the subject wasn’t on the agenda, the board of education can’t claim transparency. Since no impact study was provided, the board can’t claim any foundation for how this will affect drama in the region’s ten high schools.

They’re not the first governing body with educational oversight to do so, but the Harford Public Schools board is teaching terrible lessons to their students and their community. They’re suggesting that budgetary expedience takes precedence over informed decision and due process. They’re passing the buck arbitrarily, ignoring the multi-faceted value of drama as an educational tool, even if it is classed as an extracurricular activity. It seems as if they just wanted to go home one night after a long meeting, and they decided to stick it to the kids who they assume will pay anything to be on stage. After backtracking on their plans for the swim team, they’re now holding fast when it comes to drama.

Fortunately, the show’s not over – in fact, it may still be in the first act of several more to come. If Nicotra, Bowley, Tucker, Ernest and their many allies in Harford County – and beyond – succeed, the school board may yet realize what a short-sighted, anti-arts, anti-education measure they adopted. Ultimately, members who imposed this tax will have to answer for their decision, if not now, then in two years, when it’s time for the next school board elections, and when many of the kids affected by this action will be eligible to vote. They’ll likely want to vote in people who don’t treat any of the arts as a cash cow to milk for money to pay for other shortfalls and, who don’t channel some questionable vaudeville promoters of old, acting like they want their budgetary palms greased before they’ll let any act on stage.

Note: some of the photos accompanying this article were discovered through public sources, but did not all appear with credits for the performers or photographers. They will be immediately updated, or withdrawn if need be, upon request.

Update, October 11, 2016: Following a visit to Harford County yesterday, Arts Integrity learned that the pay-to-play fee is per student per year, not per production, as previously stated. However, the policy, which can be found here, caps fee for student involved in sports at only two years; no such cap is in place for drama.