By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 12, 2008
Montgomery school officials said they are within their rights to charge students fees for course materials but said they will provide more direction so that all fees are administered consistently and any deemed improper are eliminated.
Responding to parents' complaints that the fees are illegal, school system leaders say they might not have offered schools enough guidance on course fees, mostly small sums collected by teachers at the start of classes to cover workbooks, art supplies and sundry materials not routinely provided free of charge.
"We're going to get to a place where the fees are consistent, and communicate clear guidelines to schools about what should and shouldn't be charged," said Brian Edwards, chief of staff to Superintendent Jerry D. Weast. "What this has brought to light is that the process we were using wasn't working well."
Parents who oppose fees contend the charges are not just inconsistent but illegal. They cite a 1987 opinion by Maryland's attorney general, who interpreted the state's guarantee of a free public education to cover "everything directly related to a school's curriculum." It's more or less the final word on fees, as no state court has ruled on the issue since.
"If the fees are illegal, then consistency doesn't matter," said Louis Wilen, a Montgomery parent who is among the leaders of the protest. Wilen allowed, however, that the school system's efforts would "probably make some people happier." Much of the dispute has focused on the disparity in fees from one school to the next.
School officials announced last month they would examine their rules on fees. The school board met with its legal counsel Tuesday, and the board's policy committee discussed the issue Wednesday.
A work group is reviewing each of the hundreds of fees charged by secondary schools; individual schools charge as many as 50 fees, ranging from a dollar to more than $100. A separate group is reviewing supply lists required by elementary schools, which typically ask parents to provide an assortment of pens, paper, folders and glue sticks for use by the class. Supply lists have grown in recent years.
Course fees have been a hot topic on parent e-mail lists, although school officials say most dissent comes from a small cadre of parents. There are few reported instances of parents refusing to pay fees.
Most school systems in the Washington region charge fees. An informal survey last month found that some counties -- including Loudoun, Fairfax and Calvert -- enumerate the kind and amount of fees that schools are permitted to charge. Montgomery, by contrast, does not bar schools from charging fees but guarantees students all "material required to meet course outcomes."
Stephen Bedford, chief school performance officer in Montgomery, said inquiries from his department found that other Maryland school systems have no idea what fees their schools are charging.
Montgomery's policy, last updated in 2003, requires schools to submit proposed fees to one of six community superintendents for approval. The resulting spreadsheet of fees approved countywide runs to 48 pages. Schools vary widely in how many fees they charge, and costs for the same course vary among schools. The list of fees sent to parents may give no detail on how the money is spent.
"We weren't really reviewing the fees on a regular basis," said Sharon Cox, a school board member who chairs its policy committee. "There are a number of fees that have been approved, but there's no clear information what those fees are for."
In the future, Cox said, schools probably will be forbidden to charge fees without a stated purpose or to charge more than the cost of the supplies. Fees likely will be restricted to "consumables," or materials that students use and discard.
The school system might determine a maximum fee for each course. Cox cautioned, though, that there could be "legitimate differences" in materials used from one school to another.
There is no set deadline for rewriting the rules. Cox said the discussion could be lengthy and picayune. Example: "Is graph paper something we need to provide? Because you need to graph in class," she said. "Does that make it the same as notebook paper, which we don't need to provide?"