Ronnie Polaneczky: He has money. Schools need it. WTH?

Superintendent William Hite might want to consider the offer from Tim Horan.
Superintendent William Hite might want to consider the offer from Tim Horan. (LEFT PHOTO: STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 26, 2012

GIVE ME a W! Give me a T! Give me an H!

What's that stand for?

"What the Heck?"

As in, what the heck is going on in the Philadelphia School District when it comes to gyms and recreational facilities? And why the heck won't anybody in the district give Tim Horan a listen?

Horan is co-owner of Philadelphia Sport and Social Clubs, a for-profit Manayunk company that organizes fun activities for adults. He spends $250,000 a year to rent gyms and athletic fields around the Delaware Valley so that his co-ed members can play football, soccer, volleyball and other sweaty games after work and on the weekends.

His group is paying the city's Parks and Recreation Department $48,250 this year to rent the city's gyms and ball fields. At the Lee Cultural Center, in West Philly, Horan's company even installed a $5,500 surveillance system. Better security was needed at the site, where some of Horan's club members had been mugged and their cars vandalized.

"The city didn't have the money for it, and we didn't budget for it," Horan told me. "But we wanted to protect our participants, our business and the other park users, especially children. It was a win for us, the city and residents."

Last year, I wrote a column about Horan's failed attempt to forge a similar partnership with the Philadelphia School District, whose umpteen schools have fields and gyms galore. But a spokeswoman said that the district wouldn't rent to a for-profit company, since it might squeeze out use by nonprofits that couldn't afford to pay rental fees. She also said that renting to a for-profit company would jeopardize the district's nonprofit status (which didn't make sense to experts I spoke with).

After the column ran, a school official promised several times to meet with Horan, but blew him off. So Horan gave up trying to pay tens of thousands of dollars to the district to use gyms and fields that were sitting empty.

Read that sentence again and try not to feel depressed.

Anyway, I was puzzled this week, when the city and district announced a plan to preserve winter-time recreational programming and activities for more than kids who use district space after hours. Without the plan, families would have to pony up extra cash to the district for their kids to participate.

And I thought, "What the heck . . . ?"

For years, it seems, the district had allowed nonprofit youth and adult athletic groups to use district gyms and fields for free if they were affiliated with the Recreation Department.

It was a generous arrangement, except that the overtime cost of keeping the buildings open late added up to millions of dollars.

So, the district wanted the groups to cover the overtime - about $57 an hour. It was a reasonable demand, given the district's dire financial straits, but it caught nonprofits off-guard.

"It would set us back $20,000 this season," says Fran Young, president of Somerton Youth Organization, which offers basketball, cheerleading, softball and the like to hundreds of families. "We'd have to pass that onto parents. Some of them have a lot of kids. It would be a hardship."

So everyone's glad that this week the city and district agreed to work together to cover those costs.

But next year, the same funding woes will re-appear. Unless, of course, the district gets creative.

Which brings us, again, to companies like Tim Horan's. He doesn't want to squeeze out nonprofits that use the schools. But he'd sure love to talk with someone about renting fields and gyms that are sitting empty.

"I'd write a big check tomorrow for space," he says emphatically. "I'm dying to."

So I ran his request past district spokesman Fernando Gallard, who promised to refer Horan to new district superintendent, William Hite. The new regime, he said, is interested in discussing all money-saving options.

"We're about to [issue] $300 million in bonds" to cover expenses, he said soberly. "That underlines where we are financially. So we're willing to talk witheveryone we can."

Well, wouldn't that be a heck of a thing?


Contact Ronnie Polaneczky at polaner@phillynews.com or 215-854-2217. Follow her on Twitter @RonniePhilly. Read her blog at philly.com/ronnieblog, or for recent columns go to philly.com/Ronnie.

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