Maryland County Taxing Drama Club Students, But Not Others

no-pay-to-play

In Harford County Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore, an embezzlement scheme is taking place courtesy of the county school board.

In June of this year, the county school board voted to levy a $100 fee per student to participate in the school drama program. This fee on top of the money that is forcibly taken to fund the public school system; a double hit for the district.

A fee for a school program is not something that is terribly uncommon, but the fee for such activity whether it is for a sport or other extracurricular endeavor is usually lower and actually goes towards that activity.

But in Harford County, that is not the case; not at all.

As the Baltimore Sun reported:

The Harford County Board of Education got a standing ovation from an overflow crowd Monday night after its unanimous approval of using more than $552,000 in the school system’s fund balance to save swimming and to keep its three pools operating for the next year.

Funding swimming and restoring overnight stays to Harford Glen, the outdoor education program, were part of the amended $438.6 million operating budget the school board unanimous approved during its marathon six-hour meeting that began at 6:30 p.m. Monday and adjourned at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Ready for it? Here’s the kicker (emphasis added)…

Harford County Public Schools officials proposed closing the pools and eliminating interscholastic swimming, in which 315 out of more than 37,500 HCPS students participate, as part of a series of measures proposed to balance the operating budget for fiscal 2017. As part of saving the swimming program, the school board also voted to increase the pay to play participation fee from $50 per sport, per athlete to $100. The board also voted to include those participating in drama programs to be among those students required to pay $100 to participate in an activity.

Let’s take a look at those last few sentences there, and analyze exactly what’s going on. The Harford County School Board recognized that there was a potential budget shortfall, and that a swimming program might have to be cut due to budget constraints. But when dealing with the cost of sports programs, the Board decides to dip into other areas of school activity to cover that shortfall, thus putting more burden on students and parents.

The fund balance spending was offset by $50,000, as the board approved increasing sports participation fees, or “pay to play,” from $50 to $100 and charging students $100 each to take part in extracurricular drama productions – board Vice President Joe Voskuhl made a motion to add the $100 fee for drama, which was approved.

The Board had to fill a $50,000 budget gap, and increased the activity fee to $100 across the board. But the issue here is that the drama clubs in Harford County generally do no receive money from the school to put on their productions. They are almost always self-funded.

The Arts Integrity Initiative describes in more detail what this kind of pay-to-play means for drama club students.

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.

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 a great question. The Arts Integrity Initiative reached out for comment on why the drama clubs are being swept up in this scheme, but the only reply that they received was that the vote took place on May 13, without actually asking the question of why the drama clubs were brought into this.

But of course, what else can we expect? This is a government school system after all, and government school systems operate no differently than any other government agency: by slowing draining taxpayers of their money. And it seems that Harford County Public Schools are teaching an important lesson about how taxation is theft, and how government loves to use “fees” to collect more revenue as our expense. All the while we are paying for that

As the Sun reported, one of the major issues was the swimming teams of the County schools. The Board decided to put the burden of funding the sports programs onto the drama students, even though the latter do not even take dollars from the school system, and have no financial effect on the former. And why might that be?

Well, it seems that the drama clubs are rather successful in Harford County, especially at Bel Air High School. The performances that the students put on have been so successful, in fact, that the money raised by the drama club has been enough to actually pay the director.

The County School Board must have made the drama program out to be quite the cash cow that is ready for the milking. As one active drama student, Olivia Bowley, noted to the Arts Integrity Initiative,

“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.”

And that right there is evidence that the Board did, in fact, see the drama program as a revenue raising tool rather than the educational program it is designed to be. Look at how the money will be handled with this new activity tax fee becoming school policy, according to Bowley.

“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.”

No other club is being targeted like this, so why the persecution?

Money.

What a lesson in how government works. If you have it, they’ll tax it, and if it’s fun they’ll regulate it until it’s not fun anymore. Not even public school activities are immune from this general tendency of government.

Educational programs are being turned into cash cows to cover budget shortfalls, and the ones who pay the price are the students and parents, and the community at large as well. Taxation like this disincentivizes production, and punishes creativity and innovation. Not even an institution funded by taxation is immune to this.

Students should take this lesson to heart, because this is how government really works.