Schools In Need Turn To User Fees

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From parking spaces to lab equipment, parents in many districts this year 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 begun passing some of the financial burden on to parents through users' fees.

"It's more common to have fees now than it was five years ago because schools are not getting the support from taxpayers,'' says Jay Butler, a spokesman for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "It's the domino effect.''

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

A 1975 Illinois Supreme Court ruling said charging such fees did not infringe on a student's right to a free public education, and the decision has helped districts weather financial downturns. "It's easy to see an increase in revenue of $50,000 to $250,000 for a typical high school,'' Popernik says. "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,'' says Karen Linde, who recently paid $200 for yearbooks and enrollment fees so that her son could begin his junior year at Homewood-Flossmoor High. "We pay pretty high taxes, and the state isn't doing its job.''

Districts in other states also are charging fees to offset enrollment increases or to recoup financial losses. 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. Assistant principal Hal Smith says enrollment has nearly doubled in four years. The fee, he argues, is a reasonable price for parking privileges.

Some schools are charging students to participate in athletics. In Eanes, Texas, student athletes have to plunk down $100 if they want to play sports this year. Superintendent John Phillips says such fees can recover some of the money the district lost under a plan to equalize education spending statewide. The affluent, 6,900-student district outside Austin will send $8 million to the state this year as part of the equity plan.

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

Still, parent groups are not thrilled by the trend. Districts, the groups argue, shouldn't try to solve their financial problems by reaching into parents' pockets. Harriet O'Donnell, a spokeswoman for the Illinois PTA and a past president of the group, says 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 O'Donnell says many parents who are ineligible for waivers also cannot afford to pay. "Some parents are on the edge of eligibility,'' she says, "and $150 means two weeks' food.''

In Utah, a state law permits low-income students to work in lieu of paying fees, but it has also drawn fire. "It creates a caste system in the public schools,'' says David Challed, a senior staff attorney at Utah Legal Services in Salt Lake City.

High school students in Utah's 5,000-student Carbon district 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,'' Bush says. "[The system allows] the kids to maintain their self-worth rather than having something given to them.''

Despite the opposition, many administrators say that as long as budgetary pressures remain, user fees are an important safety valve that they will employ. "We do a lot of fee charging in Utah because the state's per-pupil expenditure is so low,'' says Laurie Chivers, the state's deputy superintendent. Fees alone added about $18 million to the state's $1.4 billion education budget in 1993-94. "Until you can find another revenue source,'' she says, "they're going to be there.''

--Jessica Portner

Vol. 07, Issue 04, Page 1-24

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