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Student Fees on the Rise To Help Defray Costs

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From parking spaces to pompons, parents in many districts this fall are paying for a wide variety of school services that once came free.

At a time when school districts are pinched between budget cuts, caps on property taxes, and rising costs, many have turned to creative fund raising, passing some of the financial burden to parents through users' fees.

At the Homewood-Flossmoor High School in the Chicago suburb of Flossmoor, Ill., fees for enrollment, gym clothes, yearbooks, and lab equipment can run the tab for parents with more than one child up to $500 a year, officials said.

"It's a justifiable and legitimate way to raise revenue," said James Popernik, the district's former assistant superintendent, who is now an assistant superintendent in nearby Wheaton.

A 1975 Illinois Supreme Court ruling said that charging fees for supplementary supplies and services did not infringe on a student's right to a free public education.

That decision has helped districts weather financial downturns, Mr. Popernik said.

"With a little creativity, it's easy to see an increase in revenue of $50,000 to $250,000 for a typical high school," he said. "Over four years, that's $1 million on the plus side."

A plus for school districts, maybe, but not always such a positive thing for the parents who have to write the checks when school starts.

"August is a tough month because you have to put aside money for the fees," said Karen Linde, who recently paid $200 for yearbooks and enrollment fees so that her son could begin his junior year at Homewood-Flossmoor High School.

"We pay pretty high taxes, and the state isn't doing their job" to support public education, she said.

Districts in other states are increasingly charging fees to offset enrollment increases or to recoup financial losses.

Trend in Other States

At Park City High School in Utah, administrators raised the fee for student parking spaces from $2 to $50 this year to help pay for a security attendant for the school's new parking lot.

Hal Smith, the assistant principal, said enrollment has nearly doubled in four years. The fee is a reasonable price to charge for parking privileges, he added.

"We are growing extremely rapidly, and many of our students are driving in," said Mr. Smith. He hopes the annual fee will encourage students to carpool to class.

Student athletes in the Eanes, Texas, public schools will have to plunk down $100 if they want to play sports this year. Superintendent John A. Phillips said fees to participate in athletics can recover money lost under a state plan to equalize education spending between poor and wealthy districts.

The affluent, 6,900-student district outside Austin will send $8 million to the state this year as part of the equity plan, Mr. Phillips said.

When it comes to a choice between paying fees or losing their sports programs, many parents accept the extra charge, he said.

"We've tried to economize as much as we could while protecting our funds that are closest to the classroom," he said. "I'm sure [parents] understand that this equalization has a profound effect financially on our district."

Though financial pressures have spurred an increase in the number of districts charging users' fees, many schools across the country have relied on them for decades, said Jay Butler, a spokesman for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

"It's more common to have fees now than it was five years ago because schools are not getting the support from taxpayers," Mr. Butler said. "It's the domino effect."

He predicted that users' fees may herald a surge in creative fund-raising efforts by districts.

Objections to Fees

But some parents' groups say districts shouldn't try to solve their financial problems by reaching into parents' wallets.

Harriet O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for the Illinois PTA and a past president of the group, argues that the fees many districts impose discriminate against poor students. Illinois, like other states, has a law exempting students who qualify for subsidized meals from such fees. But Ms. O'Donnell said many parents who are ineligible for waivers also cannot afford to pay.

"Some parents are on the edge of eligibility," she said, "and $150 means two weeks' food."

A Utah law that allows low-income students to work in lieu of paying fees has also drawn fire. Critics say it separates students based on their economic status.

"It creates a caste system in the public schools," said David Challed, a senior staff attorney at Utah Legal Services, a legal-aid organization in Salt Lake City..

High school students in the rural, 5,000-student Carbon school district in Utah sweep floors and wash school buses to earn money to pay for field trips, sports, band uniforms, and other expenses.

Superintendent Val Bush defends the practice, noting that students are not forced to work.

"There is a strong work ethic here in Utah," Mr. Bush said. The system allows "the kids to maintain their self-worth rather than having something given to them."

Paperwork Hassle

In some districts, user fees have become a bureaucratic nuisance.

Ohio passed a law in July that exempts students receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children from paying fees. Some districts that mistakenly charged such students this fall have been forced to issue refunds.

"If you're not generating a lot of money with the fees, then it may be more trouble than it's worth, and some districts might let it go," said Jane Bruss, a spokeswoman for the Toledo school district, which is issuing refunds to some parents.

But many administrators say that as long as budgetary pressures remain, users' fees are an important safety valve.

"We do a lot of fee-charging in Utah because the state's per-pupil expenditure is so low," said Laurie Chivers, the state's deputy superintendent. She said fees added about $18 million to the state's $1.4 billion education budget in 1993-94.

"Until you can find another revenue source," she said, "they're going to be there."

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