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School property not always open for public's use

Every Sunday morning tennis player Roy Theisen heads out to swat a few balls with his buddies.

This Sunday, just as Theisen was serving to break a 3-3 tie at East Lake High School's courts, a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy interrupted the game and told them to leave.

The courts were private property, the deputy told Theisen.

Theisen, 70, was stunned. After all, taxpayers spent millions of dollars building East Lake High School, and it wasn't the group's first game.

"We've been doing it for years and years," said Theisen, a snowbird from Virginia.

Maybe so, but officials say school yards, ball courts and playing fields that taxpayers have paid for are not automatically open to the public.

"It's a common misconception," said Ron Stone, Pinellas County schools spokesman. "You don't want to put the situation out there where the public will use the facility and hurt themselves, and because it is a public facility, the School Board will be held liable."

So it's up to each principal in Pinellas as to whether people will be allowed to shoot hoops, play tennis or walk laps around the school's track after school hours.

In Theisen's case, he and his buddies should be able to resume their weekly games as long as they don't park in handicapped spaces, Stone said. This week, some of them had parked in handicapped spots. That led a neighbor to alert the school custodian, who called the sheriff.

Still, Theisen's experience highlights what some school administrators say is an important, but little-known rule governing school facility use by the public.

Spending money on litigation or maintenance of outdoor facilities abused by the public would divert the School Board from its main responsibility of educating the public, said John Bowen, Pinellas County School Board attorney.

"It's like the courthouse, it's paid for with taxpayers money," said Dana Newberry, assistant principal at East Lake High School. "But you can't just go there and have a meeting any time you want to."

Technically, a lease agreement is required for use of school facilities. For example, the YMCA frequently leases baseball fields at county schools, which they supervise during use. Every year, the school district processes about 120 lease agreements with various organizations and jurisdictions, said Jim Miller, Pinellas County schools director of real property. Those agreements require the organizations using the facilities to have at least $500,000 in comprehensive general liability insurance that covers the School Board on the policy. Activities must take place outside regular school hours.

Many times, however, school administrators try to strike a balance between the policy and fostering good community relations.

"We want our schools to be friendly places in the community," said Stephen Fairchild, Pinellas County schools real property and facilities specialist. "However, the condition has to be maintained and the potential of money going out of the system because of lawsuits are what you have to be protected from."

At Palm Harbor Middle school, principal Ward Kennedy allows the public to use the track in the afternoons.

"We don't advocate it; you're coming at your own risk," Kennedy said. "But the people have been using it over the years, and we haven't had any real problems."

Mike Whitlock of Palm Harbor said he didn't know that citizens were allowed on the track at the discretion of the principal, but he understands the rationale.

"It's the public's responsibility to take care of it," said Whitlock, who said he lost 24 pounds in a month jogging on the track. "If they're not, then I can see how it could be a hindrance to what the track is really here for _ the kids."

Pasco County has the same policy on leisure use.

"We do have to live with the fact that this is a litigious society, and we have to maintain some standards for that use," said Ray Gadd, Pasco County schools assistant to the superintendent for employee services and planning. "But, there's a good chance that if they're a few people walking around the track for exercise, we would certainly not have issue with those types of things."

In Hillsborough County, there are requirements for organizations to lease school facilities, but leisure use is more welcomed than in Pasco and Pinellas.

"We encourage it to the extent that it makes the school even more of a community asset," said Mark Hart, spokesman for Hillsborough County schools. "Not only is it a place for children to learn, but it's a place for the community to come together."

A good rule of thumb for citizens who want to use school yards or playing fields in Pinellas is to check for "No Trespassing" signs on the property, said Miller, who is in charge of the Pinellas schools real property department.

"If there aren't any, then the best thing to do is to use the property responsibly," he said.

Nicole Johnson can be reached at njohnsonsptimes.com or (727) 771-4303.

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