Budget deficits prompt students to pay more for activities
April 14, 2010|By Tara Malone, Tribune reporter
Faced with dwindling state revenues and property taxes, dozens of local districts have cut expenses and laid off teachers. Now many are asking students to pay more when they register for class or sign up for after-school programs that were free a generation ago — driving up the cost of a public education at a time when many families can least afford it.
School officials say they have nowhere else to turn.
“This is going to be a hardship for some people,” said spokesman Tom Hernandez of Plainfield School District 202. “But this is one of the few, the very few revenue sources that we have any control over.”
People tend to think of public education as being free. But for years Illinois children have paid extra to participate in sports, learn to drive or rent textbooks. They could pay even more next year in schools caught in a financial squeeze.
“We’re looking at a dire situation,” said Michael Jacoby, executive director of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.
Faced with a $44 million budget deficit, Elgin-based School District U-46 officials plan to more than double the cost of participating in a high school sport, to $150, increase the instructional fee from $100 to $125, charge an extra dollar for student IDs and require $19 per semester for photography, science lab and industrial arts classes, for instance. Several fees climbed at the grade school level too.
It was the first increase in five years.
Without the fee hikes, additional programs and courses might have been cut, said Greg Walker, assistant superintendent for secondary education. Elgin, the state’s second-largest district, laid off a quarter of its work force, including 732 teachers, last month.
“To operate (programs) at no cost to students, there would be a 100 percent burden on the district. You can’t operate at a loss and continue to move forward,” Walker said.
In Downers Grove Community High School District 99, families will pay more to watch high school games and school events when the cost of an activity pass rises from $60 to $75. Students will pay an extra $25 to park on campus, bringing the fee to $175. Sports will cost an additional $10 and yearbook another $5, according to district spokeswoman Faith Behr.
The increases are expected to net $245,700.
“It was seen really as a way not to make as many cuts into the programs,” Behr said.
Gurnee parent Ken Detina will pay $260 to register his twin boys in third grade next fall. He paid $150 when they enrolled in second grade.
Woodland School District 50 increased registration fees and bumped up the price of a hot lunch by 40 cents. The north suburban district also cut $2.8 million from next year’s budget.
“Obviously nobody wants to pay more. But you have to,” said Detina, who sat on the financial advisory group that studied the district’s budget and recommended the higher fees.
Glenbrook High School District 225 officials held the line on transportation costs this year and even offered a discount to families with multiple children to ensure that all students can travel to school, said Hillarie Siena, assistant superintendent for business affairs.
Instead, the district reinstated a towel charge and material fee — $25.50 in all — that they had waived last year in deference to the economy.
As a rule, public schools are not money-making ventures. They may charge rent if people want to use the gym or sell advertising rights to a sports field. But other than asking voters to approve a tax-rate increase, public schools can do little to generate revenue.
Districts draw the bulk of their money from local real estate taxes. State law limits how much they can increase the property tax rate every year to 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower. Last year, the rate of inflation stalled out at 0.1 percent.
Adding to the strain on schools is the $1.2 billion backlog of state payments owed to school districts for transportation, special education, early childhood and other costs, according to the Illinois Comptroller’s Office.
School officials acknowledge that fees are a tiny piece of their budget. But they are reliable when state funding is not.
“It’s not an extremely large revenue source, but it’s a targeted revenue source,” Jacoby said.
State law requires that schools make fee waivers available. Students who qualify for a free lunch are exempt from paying most other school-based fees. Many districts offer a payment plan for families who earn too much to qualify for help and too little to easily afford the charges.
“Only time will tell if people drop out” of activities, said Plainfield’s Hernandez. “We heard people in the community say ‘I’d rather pay a little more.’ ”
Students in the west suburban district next year will pay double to play with the school band, sing in the choir and compete in a high school sport. Fee raises could net an additional $1.2 million for a district that cut nearly $21 million in expenses.
On a recent morning, Plainfield Central High School band director Dan Valkema coached his class through a composition that drew on every French horn, oboe, chime and euphonium in the room. Students even experimented with water-filled wine glasses and a harmonic whirly — a hollow tube that makes sound when spun quickly.
But Valkema said he plans to buy fewer new instruments, repair rather than replace aging ones and travel to fewer out-of-state performances next year. In the past, students and booster clubs helped subsidize such costs.
“We have to be careful not to price students out of our activity,” Valkema said.
Sophomore Kelli Bergeson will pay $180 to study with the symphonic band and concert choir next year, up from the current, combined fee of $90.
The 16-year-old soprano who dreams of singing professionally shrugged off the added expense.
“It’s kind of disappointing that I have to pay more,” Bergeson said. “But I’ll be paying more to do something I love.”