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Tuesday, Sep 26, 2017
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Parking fee for high school commencements irks families

TAMPA - Raylene Worley had to plunk down some serious cash for caps and gowns, announcements, photographs and yearbooks for her two daughters graduating this year from Bloomingdale High School. So when she got to the Florida State Fairgrounds on Monday and had to shell out even more money just to pay for parking to attend graduation, she was miffed. "I think it's terrible and everyone I talk to feels the same way," Worley said. "This is the culmination of our kids' education. I just think it's wrong." What irks Worley is that she had to pay $5 to park outside Expo Hall. So did some cousins from Fort Walton Beach. And the older sister of the duo. All told, there were five vehicles that had to pay to attend the graduation of Lisa and Christina.
The totals add up quickly – for the Worleys and for the Florida State Fair Authority. With 27 high schools and the adult education program holding their commencement exercises at the fairgrounds east of Tampa, graduation is a big source of cash for the authority when it comes to parking revenues. Most days during graduation season, four schools a day are churned through Expo Hall, which the Hillsborough County school district rents for all of its commencements. On Thursday of last week, the authority raked in $35,645 as friends and family members gathered to watch the graduates of Tampa Bay Tech, Sickles, Newsome and Brandon get their diplomas. A day later, the total was $30,740 for ceremonies for King, Plant, Durant and Lennard. In 2011, high school graduations brought the authority more than $208,000. "It's an awful lot and it's great," Scott Merselis, spokesman for the authority, said of the parking revenues. "We do see a lot of traffic." Don't try telling Worley it's great. "It's easy money," she said. "If I was going there for entertainment, that would be another thing. But this is a ceremony." Many others don't like the idea, either. "It's a little ridiculous," said Chris Rivers, who was at Expo Hall to watch four friends graduate from Robinson High. "I couldn't believe it when I saw it. If they are going to charge, maybe they should donate it to the school that's graduating." Providence Romano of Seminole in Pinellas County, attending the Bloomingdale graduation, agrees. "They should have waived it for graduation," said Romano, who said she didn't have to pay for parking at Bright House Field in Clearwater when watching her grandchildren graduate from Clearwater High. Nor did she have to pay, she said, when a grandchild graduated from the University of South Florida. Charles Pessano, executive director of the authority, said graduations have to be treated the same as a gun show or a recreational vehicle show renting out the arena. "We charge for parking for all events other than the state fair," Pessano said. "We've been doing that for decades. It's not a new concept." He said the idea of not charging for graduations never has been discussed. "If they were having graduations downtown, I'm sure all of the parking garages wouldn't stop charging," Pessano said. "And it allows us to charge the school district a much-reduced rate because of the impact of the parking." For 2012, the school district paid $126,509 to the fair authority to hold all high school rehearsals and graduations at Expo Hall. Before last year, ceremonies were divided between the Sun Dome at USF and Expo Hall. Candy Olson, chairwoman of the school board, said the district could pay more money to the authority and have parking fees waived. But she's not sure that is a good solution. "We have a limited amount of money," Olson said. "If we pay for the parking, there will be something else that we are not paying for. There would be something else we couldn't do." Olson said she understands Worley's argument. "She may feel like parking is the straw that breaks the camel's back and I sympathize with her," Olson said. "I understand how she feels." April Griffin, another school board member, said she can't fault the fair authority for its policies. "They have lowered the costs of the rental, they're doing so much for us now," Griffin said. "They are in the business to make money as well." School board members, who attend a number of graduations each year, get a free pass so they don't have to pay the $5. When Stephanie Carlisle pulled up to enter the parking lot to see her niece, Lauren, graduate on Monday from Robinson High, she was caught off guard by the parking fee. That's because she's not a fan of carrying cash, and fairgrounds parking is cash only. Luckily for her, her brother was in front of her and paid her parking toll. "I've never had to pay to come to a graduation," Carlisle said. "I thought it was a little weird." Graduation parking fees Last year, the Florida State Fair Authority collected more than $208,000 for parking during Hillsborough County's high school graduations. Here are totals so far as this year's graduations get under way. Tampa Bay Tech / $10,325 Sickles / $6,765 Newsome / $8,655 Brandon / $9,900 Total: $35,645 King / $9,315 Plant / $7,970 Durant / $8,905 Lennard / 4,550 Total: $30,740 Source: Florida State Fair Authority

rshaw@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7999

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