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Chesapeake Public Schools is preparing its latest iteration of a district facilities use policy that removes explicit mention of non-school affiliated groups – and community clubs and organizations are concerned they could lose affordable and convenient meeting spaces.

It’s the latest change the district may make after a months-long controversy over allowing the Afterschool Satan Club to meet at an elementary school last school year.

The school board will consider the change at its meeting Tuesday.

Ryan Mann is a coach for the Hickory Wrestling Club, which uses Hickory High School’s gym. The club allows children as young as kindergarten to join, which can provide a pathway to wrestling on school-sponsored teams starting in middle school, Mann said.

“If a decision [was] made that resulted in Hickory Wrestling Club being unable to use Hickory High School's wrestling room, the club would probably go away,” he said. 

Middle and high school kids can wrestle on official school teams, Mann said. But public elementary schools don’t have the same kind of sports teams.

The proposed draft policy doesn’t name organizations and doesn’t change language around what groups are allowed. 

Instead, the draft focuses on groups that have a Chesapeake schools faculty or staff member as a sponsor that are “intended to further an educational and/or recreational extracurricular purpose of the school.” school-affiliated nonprofits that exist to support a specific school, like a PTA or booster club, and government bodies.

Most board members said earlier this summer that it was important to find a way to keep organizations that serve students able to operate on campus. 

It’s not clear how the draft language applies to the almost 40 organizations that aren’t explicitly school-affiliated who use school buildings.

Mann is part of the coalition of non-school clubs. Many have spoken at board meetings asking district leaders to consider the impact of adjusting a policy that could force music clubs, dance and cheer troops and athletic teams to find different places to hold events.

Schools are usually free, or charge an affordable fee for use, said Tracy Keller, CEO of Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast. There are 83 Girl Scout troops in Chesapeake and a handful of them hold regular meetings at schools, Keller said.

“[Schools are] a safe place where children are already familiar with, it's a safe place that our families are familiar with,” Keller said. “They have lots of space, lots of meeting rooms and they've just traditionally been such a supporter of our organization. I just can't imagine Girl Scouting without use of our school buildings.”

In addition to meetings, Keller said Girl Scouts contribute directly to schools, like one Scout who recently created a living classroom at Great Bridge Intermediate for her Gold Award.

Troops can find other places, like churches and libraries, for meetings, Keller said, but it’s not always free or as flexible as the troops may need.

Photo courtesy of Marcy Germanotta, Girl Scouts of the Colonial Coast

Chesapeake Girl Scout Lydia Williams did a project at Great Bridge High that focused on eating disorders and mental wellbeing. School district leaders say they want groups like the Scouts to be able to continue use public school buildings, but organizations are concerned about how policy revisions will make that clear.

For Mann, whose wrestling club needs heavy, expensive mats and indoor space, options outside of schools are expensive. The club would have to move mats around for practices and rent space, which could cost “thousands and thousands of dollars,” Mann said.

That cost would be passed on to the young wrestlers and the club knows many kids would have to stop participating.

“That's really important to me is to keep youth sports costs down as much as possible because I want it to be as inclusive as possible,” Mann said. “That way all kids can participate. And wrestling has always been a pretty accessible sport.”

Chesapeake school board member John McCormick said on his Facebook page this month that it’s not the board’s goal to make it impossible for community organizations to use school buildings.

“I’m not going to allow anyone to kick out these crucial clubs and organizations such as wrestling clubs, athletic clubs and also many other clubs and organizations that serve our students,” he said in a Facebook video. “Those clubs are essential.”

Last school year, the Afterschool Satan Club prompted the board to revisit its facilities use policy because some Chesapeake residents objected to the club’s activities. 

According to The Satanic Temple, which created the club and supports chapters around the country, it “will only open a club if other religious groups are operating on campus,” and “focuses on science, critical thinking, creative arts, and good works for the community.”

Many community groups who are now concerned about losing access to buildings didn’t have a problem with the Afterschool Satan Club.

“Join whatever club you want,” Mann said. “You can do what you want to do and I'll do what I want to do. And I like participating in the wrestling club. So does it really matter on a personal level to me that there are these other clubs out there? It really doesn't because it doesn't affect me.”

A note of transparency: Chesapeake public schools are a member of HRETA, which holds WHRO’s license.