School board worried about impact of new rental fees
The Board of Education tabled a vote on new rental rates for school facilities last week after assessing the impact the higher fees could have on local groups renting space at schools, whose costs could nearly double.
A discussion on the rates came after a request from a group of students from Walter Schalk School of Dance, which rents space at East Elementary School for jazz, theater, dance and hip-hop classes almost every Wednesday evening, or 46 times a year. With the proposed rental structure, the for-profit group, which has been renting space at New Canaan public schools for more than 50 years, would be paying as much as $500 for three hours, up from $270.
"Although the Walter Schalk School of Dance is technically a for-profit organization, its goal of education makes it more similar to that of a nonprofit," Lauren Carlson, a dance student, said.
The Wilton-based studio provides classes for boys and girls from first to 12th grades. There are about 400 children enrolled at the studio, many of them from New Canaan.
The group of students told the board that if the fees are increased, the dance school might be forced to move its activities to another town.
"I don't think any of us realized when we were doing this what we might be doing to some of these groups," board member Dionna Carlson, Lauren's mother, said.
The studio pays $270 to use the school's gymnasium and $240 to use the cafetorium. Under the proposed new rates, it would pay $500 and $400, respectively.
Board member Jennifer Richardson called the increase a "huge jump."
The school district updated its facility rental policy last year, and recently did a survey of similar nearby districts to determine new rates.
"This was not an analysis of all of our costs. It was looking to upgrade or update our facilities' rental rates, since they hadn't been changed in a fairly long period of time," interim Director of Finance and Operations Nancy Harris said. "The rental fees were strictly tied to the geographical area and what our competition was also charging,"
The new fee structure would affect all outside groups renting school facilities.
The formula splits the "local nonprofit" category in two: New Canaan community groups and New Canaan private nonprofits. Depending on the school and the facility being leased, the prices could rise, fall or remain unchanged. Here are some examples:
New Canaan nonprofit groups renting the high school auditorium pay $240; the proposed increase would be to $350.
New Canaan nonprofit groups leasing an elementary school classroom pay $165; the proposed increase is $50.
Out-of-town nonprofit groups renting the middle school auditorium pay $375; the increase proposed is $375.
Harris surveyed the towns in the New Canaan schools' District Reference Group, which includes Darien, Wilton and Westport. She said those towns incorporate the cost of maintenance and utilities into their fees, which New Canaan now wants to start doing.
Several board members suggested grandfathering the Schalk school because of its long relationship with the district, but others opposed the idea.
"I'm not sure that's the message we want to convey in our community, that we sort of value one group over another in our rent structure," Dionna Carlson said.
She did note, however, that the structure needs to be revisited so that groups like the dance studio may continue to provide programs for New Canaan young people.
"This will either raise the cost to parents, and some will be able to afford it and some will not, or it will drive people out of here," she said. "So I'm not sure that's what we want to be doing as a community (in order to) have a very rigid standard."
Schalk, the founder of the school, said in an interview Tuesday that he doesn't think it's fair to charge so much for an organization that has been a partner of the town for so many years. He said his studio is not like most for-profit organizations, as it has awarded more than $800,000 in scholarships since its establishment in 1957. Five scholarships, totaling $14,000, were awarded to New Canaan students last year alone, he said.
"They're giving back to the community much more than other organizations that may be categorized differently," Dionna Carlson said.
Interim Superintendent of Schools Bryan Luizzi asked the board to be mindful of the "philosophy" behind the facility use policy, which he said encourages local no-profit organizations to use the schools. "There's a philosophy in the policy that's meant to be captured in the rate structure," he said.
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