Over the past year, the student parking fee at Stafford High School in Stafford Springs, Conn., went from a mere $2 to $100. In Lake Oswego, Ore., the local school board lowered such fees to $175 per year from $250, after parents complained. And the Andover, Mass., district is considering more than tripling student parking fees, from $100 to $325, to raise an estimated $114,000 for the next school year.
As districts around the country deal with persistent budget struggles, some school boards are introducing or increasing user fees, particularly student parking fees, as their next move in the tug of war between budget constraints and rising expenses.
Officials argue that parking fees are more equitable than many other student charges, such as those for participation in sports or other activities, because students have the option of riding the bus for free if they feel the parking costs are too high.
But this school year, parking fees in some communities have angered parents and students, setting off boycotts in which students chose to park off school grounds. In a few places, the boycotts led districts to lower the fees.
Still, school finance experts do not see districts backing away from this source of extra money.
Rick Ring, the transportation committee chairman for the Reston, Va.-based Association of School Business Officials, which tracks the various methods that schools are now using to generate revenue, said although many parents and students are not fans of the increases, he sees higher student parking fees as an option more and more districts will continue to consider.
“I think it’s a means of generating alternative funds for schools with tight budgets,” said Mr. Ring, who is also the director of custodial and transportation services for the St. Vrain Valley school district in Colorado. “There has to be somewhat of a user fee, if the district is getting financially strapped. They have no other alternative.”
In his 22,000-student district, he said, the financial situation is so tight that school board members are considering charging students fees for transportation in addition to parking fees, which already exist.
“If it were between cutting a curriculum program and generating alternative funds, I’d introduce parking fees,” Mr. Ring said. “The choice is pretty clear.”
Boycott in West Hartford
Thérèse G. Fishman, the superintendent of the 2,000-student Stafford public schools in Stafford Springs, Conn., agrees with Mr. Ring.
“I think we all feel bad that it has come to this,” she said. “This is a very tough financial situation.”
Last May, to balance its $19.8 million budget, the district was forced to cut five teacher positions, five paraprofessionals, and a number of guidance interns and professional-development positions. In addition, letters were sent to parents and students in the summer informing them that the parking fee at the 575-student Stafford High would be raised to $100 a year. The increase yielded $7,100 for the district.
“It has worked out far better than we ever expected,” the superintendent said. “It is a credit to the students because they know how much we need any type of funds we can get.”
But fee increases in other places have met with significant resistance.
Lauren Clarke, a 17 year-old senior at Conard High School in West Hartford, Conn., said she and her classmates, led by the student body president, decided to boycott the institution of a $100 annual parking fee last fall.
Student leaders and others conducted research, sent a letter to the student body, and even spoke with local law-enforcement officers to guarantee that orderly and maximum participation in the boycott would be achieved, Ms. Clarke said.
Ms. Clarke, whose parents usually drive her and her 15-year-old sister, Briana, to the 1,400-student school, parked on the street during the boycott whenever her parents allowed her to drive to school. The boycott lasted about four weeks, she said.
Ellen Clarke, Lauren’s mother and a co-president of the Conard High School Parent-Teacher Organization, said the boycott impressed her and the school board, which is on a “very tight budget.”
Though the board of the 10,000-student West Hartford school district argued that revenue from the fee would help pay for parking lot maintenance, which requires at least $40,000 for snow removal each winter, the students found unexpected allies in elderly residents of the neighborhood. Those residents quickly grew annoyed when so many cars lined the curbs in front of their homes, according to Ellen Clarke.
In response to the boycott and residents’ complaints, the board agreed to lower the parking fee to $40 a year.
‘Usury’ in Oregon?
Kevin Costello, a co-vice president of the Pacer Club at the 1,100-student Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Ore., said he does not mind supporting his son’s school financially. But he’d rather be given a choice in the matter than forced. He called the fee at his son’s school “usury.”
For several years, students paid $10 annually to park at the high school. But during the 2002-03 school year, the fee was hiked to $250. This school year, after opposition from parents like Mr. Costello and from the Lakeridge High School student body president, Athan Papailiou, the board lowered the parking fee to $175.
“I do not like being charged at a public school to park on the campus at any price,” said Mr. Costello. “But at the same time, I am aware of the crisis that we have a lack of funding.” Still, he said, “I’d like to be asked to help with the crisis, not told.”
As a result, his son Brady, 16, a high school junior, regularly parks on the streets outside school property.
Mr. Papailiou, who now reluctantly pays the fee because he needs to park on campus for after-school activities, said the issue comes down to one question that school officials have to address: “Is it appropriate to target student drivers to fill budget holes?”
Claudia Bach, the superintendent of the Andover, Mass., public schools, said her district’s budget depends on parents’ support. The proposed budget for the next school year calls for an estimated $835,250 from increased user fees for transportation, athletic programs, food services, and all-day kindergarten. She noted that the proposed budget represents the fourth year the district has charged fees in those areas, partly because residents have rejected tax increases.
Ms. Bach said she tried to introduce the higher parking fees gradually, moving from $100 to $325 per school year.
“Either communities step up to the plate and pay their taxes or do without the services,” she said. The issue, she said, raises the more pressing question: “What should be the definition of a free and public education?”
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Hefty Fees for Student Parking Help Balance Budgets