School flier ban may hurt groups
Mar. 17, 2004
Ellen Shiau
Staff Writer

Nonprofits' notices wouldn't be sent home

An effort to limit the types of fliers that can be sent home from school with students has raised concerns from parents and community organizations in recent weeks.

On April 26, the Montgomery County Board of Education will consider altering the policy to allow only information from the school system, government agencies, PTAs and PTSAs, and licensed day care operations on school campuses in the "backpack mail" students carry home to parents.

Many organizations, such as nonprofit children's sports leagues, currently use the school flier distribution system to advertise their programs.

The move to change the policy stems from a lawsuit filed by the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Maryland Inc., after the school system denied a request from the group to send home fliers advertising the group's after-school Good News Club.

In April, U.S. District Court Judge Peter J. Messitte issued a temporary injunction saying that the school system did not have to distribute the fliers and would be violating the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment's prohibition against state-sponsored religion if it did.

Child Evangelism Fellowship appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va., which has not issued a decision yet.

"Looking into the issue, we polled schools to see what the burden was. We got a lot of feedback from schools saying they are spending a lot of time sorting and distributing fliers from the community," said school board President Sharon W. Cox (At Large) of Germantown on Friday.

Creating a limited forum also prevents families from receiving unwanted information, said Cox, using the hypothetical example of being asked to distribute fliers from the Ku Klux Klan. "We don't want to be put in that kind of circumstance," she said.

"It's to be fair and to be clear and not put ourselves in a situation to send home information that would not be welcome," Cox said.

The policy allows community organizations unrelated to the school to display information, which must be approved by the principal, in the school.

Fliers for display can include information about educational services related to the school system's instructional program; student health, safety or welfare; nonprofit community sports or cultural activities; and licensed day cares.

However, the majority of residents and organizations that submitted comments to the school board about the policy change oppose it, Cox said. "People don't want the restrictions. It's an easy way to get information," she said.

Jim Ganz, PTA president at Lake Seneca Elementary School in Germantown, said many parents at the school would like to see the current policy maintained.

"A lot of parents are very positive about the things coming home. They think it's very important. They don't want to see it stopped altogether," Ganz said Friday.

Lake Seneca parents at a Germantown Alliance meeting March 10 said parent volunteers sort and distribute many of the community fliers at the school.

Ganz said he understands the concerns about religious information being sent home because of the separation of church and state, and he would not like to see information coming home that promotes hate.

The school system should regulate what goes into students' backpacks, he said. However, parents also have the ability to act.

"If I don't like it, I throw it in the garbage. It goes in the recycle bin. I have that power, and I have the ability to exercise that power," Ganz said.

Nonprofit organizations also have expressed concern about the policy change. At the Germantown Alliance meeting, Trisha Heffelfinger, executive director of the Maryland Soccer Foundation, said sending fliers through schools is how the Maryland SoccerPlex in the South Germantown Recreational Park solely markets.

The Montgomery Village Foundation and the Montgomery Village Sports Association also advertise their many recreational activities through the schools, said Sharon Levine, the foundation's government relations director. "Somehow it doesn't sound like it will be going home to the parents," Levine said Thursday about information displays at the schools.

"These are activities provided for the students that are obviously a very healthy part of their lives," said Peggy Mark, the foundation's recreation and parks director. Mark said the policy change could affect program enrollment.

Levine said the school system should make exceptions for nonprofit organizations. The foundation does not have the money to send fliers through the mail to families, Mark said. Fliers through the schools also allow the foundation to reach students living outside of Montgomery Village, Levine said.

"We see them as part of our greater community," Mark said. To curb the workload, she suggested limiting the distribution of fliers through schools to a few designated weeks each year.

However, Cox said other means of advertising exist, such as asking members of organizations to distribute fliers in their neighborhoods. "They're going to have to be innovative," she said.

Ganz said the Lake Seneca PTA already has discussed steps to deal with the policy change, such as posting more information on its Web site and placing an information carousel at the front of the school. "There are other avenues to hopefully make up for the information gap," he said. "There's nothing perfect because not everybody walks into the school."

At a recent policy committee meeting, school board members clarified the policy in response to input from the community, Cox said. Monday was the last day to submit public comment to the board on the policy.

Principals rather than school superintendents can approve information for display or distribution, she said. Community groups may not circumvent the intent of the policy by using methods, such as attaching fliers to PTA newsletters.

Whether the PTA allows community organizations to advertise in the text of its newsletter will be left to the PTA, Cox said. "That's a PTA issue, and they're an independent organization," she said.

The policy committee's four members -- Cox, Charles Haughey (At Large) of Rockville, Patricia O'Neill (Dist. 3) of Bethesda and student member Sagar Sanghvi of Olney -- already have approved the new language for the policy, Cox said. Five votes are needed for the policy to pass, she said.