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Tennis players faulted for using school courts

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 whether to allow people to shoot hoops, play tennis or walk laps on the track after school hours.

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

"It's like the courthouse, it's paid for with taxpayers money," said Dana Newberry, assistant principal at East Lake High. "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. Every year, the school district processes about 120 leases with organizations, requiring them to furnish liability insurance that covers the School Board and have their activities outside regular school hours, said Jim Miller, Pinellas County schools director of real property.

Many times, though, school administrators try to strike a balance between the policy and fostering good community relations. So principals can opt to allow their schools to be used for less formal activities.

In Theisen's case, he and his pals should be able to resume their weekly games at East Lake High 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.

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 elsewhere.

"We encourage it to the extent that it makes the school even more of a community asset," said Mark Hart, spokesperson 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."

Pinellas County's Miller said 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.

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

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