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Reality sets in for field fees
January 22, 2009, 12:00 AM By Nathan Mollat

Over the years, community groups from San Bruno to San Mateo depended on low fees to rent school district’s fields, gyms and classrooms. While the facilities belonged to school districts, cities have handled the particulars — price and time.

The San Mateo Union High School District, however, decided to re-take control of the usage and fees of their facilities. After an analysis of what it would take financially to use a field, the district introduced a new fee schedule that has shocked and outraged community groups.

The much-talked about raise in usage fees of San Mateo Union High School District facilities is primed to take effect at the beginning of the new fiscal year July 1 and the reality is starting to really hit home for those organizations depending on district facilities.

Specifically, youth sports organizations. After years of the district allowing the various cities to handle facility rentals — baseball, soccer, football, lacrosse fields, as well as gyms for basketball and volleyball courts — the district brought those duties in-house and after a cost analysis of what it takes to fully run and support the facilities, the district arrived at a new fee structure. Gone are the days of paying mere pennies for the use of fields, and instead groups will pay from $15 for tennis courts to $71.50 an hour for the Burlingame or San Mateo high football stadiums.

And there is not a lot of wiggle room.

"These are the facilities use fees. We have to charge people the same (amount),” said Elizabeth McManus, deputy superintendent of business services for SMUHSD. "If someone is in a dire situation, we try to find ways to make things work.”

Common questions

Groups dependent on these facilities have many questions, the biggest being: How did the district arrive at the numbers it’s charging? And, what do groups get for their money? While these organizations look for those answers, many are also scrambling to find ways to keep costs down for their members.

Many groups are also wondering how the district will react if they choose to spend their money elsewhere.

That’s fine, as far as the district is concerned.

"That’s OK. If someone doesn’t rent a field, I don’t have to have staff there,” McManus said. "If someone is not using the field, [the district] is not incurring expenses. We’ll have facilities for our students that will last longer.”

McManus said the district is already looking at replacing the Burlingame High School artificial surface, which was installed only eight years ago. Normally rated at 10 to 12 years, McManus said the heavy traffic — from football to soccer to lacrosse — has worn out the carpet prematurely.

SMUHSD can sympathize with users, but without the funds to specifically maintain the facilities, the district dips into the general education fund which funds the schools themselves. McManus said the district’s mission is to protect the school’s teachers, support staff and curriculum and to make sure students have the best possible education above all else — and it cannot continue to subsidize local community groups.

"In the past, when districts had money, we subsidized people. It’s the right thing to do,” McManus said. "We can’t subsidize (now). It can’t happen. We had an independent CPA do a survey — what it really costs an hour — and we found we could charge more.

"This is the bottom line: The district was subsidizing a lot of users. Good, bad or indifferent, when you subsidize outside programs, it means the money did not stay in the schools.”

It was much easier in past years, McManus said, when the district funded a MAD (Maintenance Assessment District) through a parcel tax, that financed the usage — and subsidizing of — district facilities. That money is gone, the MAD lapsed and now users have to pay to play.

There are three different options regarding grade of field. Renting Burlingame High’s football stadium for example, would cost more than renting the field between the football stadium and the baseball field at San Mateo High. Also, those nonprofit groups that cater to kids 17-and-under, receive a 20 percent discount.

Service lacking in the past

What many can’t understand is why the district can’t work with the various groups and give discounts for services not being used. Bob Greene, founder and director of the Golden State Water Polo Club, recently abandoned the pool at Aragon High because of the fees increase. He now runs his club out of Serra, where he coaches the water polo and swim programs, and Woodside high’s. He cited, for example, during the fall and springs seasons — water polo and swimming seasons for the high schools — the schools are already heating the pool and have balanced the pool chemicals. Greene maintains that it can’t possibly cost much more for his club to use the Aragon pool for a couple hours after the school is done with it. After all, the heat has already been paid for. He said he would be agreeable to paying more in the winter and summer when the pool is not in use for the schools, and pay a discounted rate during the fall and spring.

"What I think they needed to do was, get the pool people together and talk (about) pools,” Greene said. "Get all the baseball people together and talk baseball.”

Greene said he wanted the district to know what goes into putting together a water polo or baseball practice or a soccer game. Maybe there would be ways to cut costs if organizations were not using 100 percent of the district’s resources.

Nearly all the organizations realize and understand the need to raise the fees — some were being charged as little as a $1 per hour — but to go from a buck to $27.50 an hour to use the San Mateo High football stadium does not sit well. The district said those are the costs necessary to prep a field for use but many organizations said they are the ones chalking soccer fields or dragging the baseball infield, packing out their garbage, repairing broken sprinkler heads or constructing new dugouts or snack shacks.

McManus insists the district will handle all the particulars. She said the district got an itemized breakdown of everything it takes to properly maintain a specific facility — from the cost of sending someone down to unlock the gate to the cost of toiletries in the bathrooms, to maintaining field and how much it would take to clean the facilities. The total the district came to is the fee schedule it now employs.

San Mateo Soccer Club president Karen Goff, among others, is skeptical. Based on the service organizations have received in the past, many groups worry that even with raised fees, the service and maintenance will remain the same — which they claim was virtually non-existent over the years.

"They haven’t done it in the past, why would they do it now?” Goff said. "They haven’t even maintained their own fields right now. What they have done to their fields in the past has been a travesty.”

Goff, along with several other group leaders, said her group spends time re-seeding soccer fields, marking the fields, moving the goals and even repairing broken sprinkler heads and water pipes. San Mateo Babe Ruth said it built the snack shack behind the baseball field at Hillsdale High and then donated it to the school. Greene said he continually donates his used equipment to the schools to use for their water polo programs. Others make monetary donations to the schools they use.

Greene said using the pool at Woodside actually costs a little bit more than using Aragon’s but as he pointed out, Woodside’s pool is "state of the art.”

"I get double the pool at Woodside,” Greene said. "I can fit more numbers to offset the costs. It’s worth it.”

Nathan Mollat can be reached by e-mail: or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 117.

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