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Budget cuts mean more fees for students

Districts requiring parents to pay fees for their children’s textbooks, lab materials, and after-school activities

School districts working to close budget gaps are increasingly requiring parents to pay fees for their children’s textbooks, lab materials, computers, and after-school activities.

It’s a regrettable but widespread trend, says Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of advocacy, policy and communications at the School Superintendents Association. “The recession lasted longer and cut deeper than anyone thought it would,” Hunter says. “Districts try to charge as little as possible, because it’s not popular. It’s a last resort.”

Maine Township (Ill.) High School District 207 has required students to purchase a $300 Chromebook for the coming school year as part of a 1:1 initiative. But the district, which charges a textbook fee, told parents that the 1:1 initiative will lead to savings as more of those textbooks become available as e-books.

“We piloted the Chromebooks for a number of years in different courses,” says district spokesperson Dave Beery. “Once the cost of the Chromebook could be absorbed by the savings from textbooks, a recommendation was made to move forward.”

Fees will be waived for low-income students, and parents can pay for the Chromebook in six installments over the course of the year. Beery says many other districts in the area have implemented similar fees.

Students in Harford County (Md.) Public Schools this year will pay $50 per sport and $25 per extracurricular activity. Administrators had to eliminate $20.2 million from their 2014 operating budget, says district spokesperson Teri Kraneseld.

The participation fees were only set for activities or sports where the coordinator or coach is paid a stipend, Kraneseld says. The money will help pay costs such as coach’s salaries, transportation, and officials’ fees.

The school board will exempt students who are approved for free and reduced-price meals, students whose parents are teachers in the district, and students whose parents are on active military duty. “We are hopeful that the waiver process and community support will assist in allowing students to participate in activities of their choosing,” Kraneseld says. “Even through this difficult budget climate, it is always the board’s goal to minimally impact the students in the classroom.”

Kraneseld recommends that administrators work out all of the intricate details before launching the fees. “Anticipate every question, provide that information proactively and be able to respond appropriately, when needed,” she says. “Change of any kind is always difficult for everyone involved, and having all the details and information prepared will help make the transition easier on the community.”

Nationally, increased fees do not seem to be deterring extra-curricular participation: More students are participating in sports and after-school activities than ever before, Hunter of the School Superintendents Association says. And more students are taking science classes than in the past, even with rising out-of-pocket fees for lab materials.

Administrators almost always waive fees for students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, Hunter says. In most cases, districts will make cuts elsewhere to pay for low-income students, but sometimes the funds come out of administrators’ own pocket, Hunter says.

“Districts need to figure out a way to make sure no child is left out because they couldn’t afford it,” he adds.