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Tug of war over Olympic Oval

Town disputes school policy on charging more groups to use shared facility

June 1, 2015
By MATTHEW TURNER (mturner@adirondackdailyenterprise.com) , Lake Placid News

LAKE PLACID - A school district policy has caused a stir because more organizations may be charged a fee to use the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, which the school co-owns with the town of North Elba.

The policy has critics, including some members of the North Elba Town Council. Town Supervisor Roby Politi has questioned whether or not the school district has the authority to charge a fee for using the oval, because of a lease agreement the town and the school district established 37 years ago.

The policy, updated last year, says the Lake Placid School District will charge a fee to certain non-school-related organizations to use school facilities, including the oval, a popular summer meeting place for annual fundraisers like Relay for Life, sports gatherings like the Ironman triathlon, and events. The school and town each own about half of the property at the oval, which was host to two Winter Olympic Games and is famous as the site where American Eric Heiden won five gold medals in the 1980 Games.

Article Photos

More local and private organizations could be charged to use of the Olympic Speed Skating Oval and school facilities for events because school board members say state education law required them to change the school facilities policy.
(News photo — Matthew Turner)

This is a time when groups typically prepare to use the oval for summer events and the school district sent out a letter informing organizations about the policy change. During the winter, the state Olympic Regional Development Authority is in charge of managing ice skating at the oval.

School District Superintendent Roger Catania said the policy was changed because it has to comply with Education Law 414. He said it's not a way for the school district to profit but rather to recoup costs incurred when organizations use school facilities.

"What the law requires is that the school board oversee the use of its facilities and then charge for the maintenance of it," Catania said. "The facilities policy generally says that the school district has to consider charging outside organizations to use the facilities to the level it costs the school district. There are outside organizations that use the oval that are charged. Those are private organizations that do not serve our student body."

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The policy

The school district's "Public Use of School Facilities" policy says outside use of district facilities will be permitted if "the applicant agrees to pay the district a user fee according to a schedule adopted by the district to cover the costs of heat, electricity, maintenance, custodial services and any other expenses associated with the request use." The policy was updated in February 2014, but it's not the first time the district has charged, or waived, fees for facilities.

Catania said, for example, if an "outside organization" uses the school gym and that requires a custodian to clean the gym then costs need to be paid to the school. The district retains the right to waive fees for groups associated with or sponsored by the district.

In the case of the oval, the district will charge for the use of it based on the maintenance costs. The school district maintains the field inside the oval, re-crowning it and seeding it with grass, Catania said.

"For instance, when Ironman's there, they just trample the whole thing down," he said.

Political, religious and fraternal organizations are specifically prohibited from using school facilities in the policy.

Other requirements include adequate insurance coverage by the group seeking to use the facility and fees for the use of school district equipment.

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Authority

Politi said in 1978 there was a lease agreement made between the school and town for a period of 50 years, until 2028. The purpose of the lease was for the town to renovate the oval for the 1980 Winter Olympics. In return, the lease states that the town allows the school district to use the baseball and recreational fields near the North Elba Show Grounds, Politi added.

Based on that, Politi questioned if the school district can legally charge people to use the oval.

"The way I interpreted the lease is that we (the town) have control over the oval, except for special functions the school may have," he said. "I think there's a distinction between the oval and the school facilities."

When asked about the 1978 lease agreement and the school's authority to charge, Catania said, "That's a really good question, and we're digging up the details of that."

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Reaction

Politi is not a fan of the school charging fees to nonprofit groups. He said the town Parks District received a letter, as did a number of other organizations, advising them that the school board policy changed and raising the question of whether the town's summer youth program would have to pay.

Catania said the school district waived the fee for the summer day camp, which uses the oval and school building. He said the letter just informed organizations about the new procedure and how to establish the criteria for waiving it. Town officials who read the letter, however, believed the youth program would be charged.

"It makes no sense for us to start charging for the use of what's, in my opinion a public facility," Politi said at the town's last board meeting after being briefed about the letter. "This community has always been a collaborative effort between the entities, and I think any policies contrary to that are not in the best interest of Lake Placid.

"You shouldn't be charging Relay for Life," he added, referring to the annual fundraiser for the American Cancer Society, an event Politi has been involved in. "You shouldn't be charging any of these not-for-profits that work for the benefit of all of the people."

In a follow-up phone interview this week, Politi went on to say that many other groups should be exempted, including organizations that "benefit the entire community" like the I Love BBQ and Music Festival, Ironman or the Olympic Car Show. Catania said the fee was waived for the BBQ fest, a fundraiser for the school district's Shipman Youth Center - and probably not be waived for Ironman, but he's "a little less clear" about Relay for Life and the car show.

Doug Hoffman, who organizes the car show that raises money for the Lake Placid Ski Club, said he hadn't read the letter from the school district yet, but was troubled by the news.

"I really hope it doesn't happen because all the profits we make from the car shows go to the children ski program," Hoffman said.

Willie Sheridan, the longtime chairwoman of the Tri-Lakes Relay for Life, recently stepped down from leading that group and said she was unaware of the school policy changing. Sheridan said the group has never been charged for using the oval during the many years it has met there.

Town Councilman Bob Miller, a former school board member, said the school facilities in general should be open to the public and free of charge as much as possible.

"It has always been my feeling that the community spent millions of dollars on these facilities and it belongs to the community," Miller said.

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"In this together"

Politi said it's important that the school district, town, village and Olympic Regional Development Authority work together because they are all partners.

"We are all in this together," he said.

Catania agreed with that sentiment, saying the school does a good job working with other local government bodies.

"There is a tremendous amount of sharing that goes on," he said. "If we have disagreements about one thing or the other, I think that's probably a communication issue."

Catania said the school district will continue to follow the school policy unless the school board agrees to change it.

School board member Rick Preston said he expects the board will discuss the policy at the June 2 school board meeting.

"The policy needs to be affordable for all and not exclusive," Preston said. "I don't think there is one school board member who wants to make money. We just can't afford to lose money."

School board member Patricia Gallagher similarly agreed the board needs to discuss the policy.

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Peter Crowley contributed to this report.

 
 
 

 

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