Schools' Reaction To Tight Times Seen in Fee Rules

Montgomery Eyes Cuts; Loudoun, Hikes

Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 8, 2009; Page B01

Course fees charged for workbooks, art supplies and other items would be cut by more than half in Montgomery County schools under a proposal Superintendent Jerry D. Weast announced yesterday to ease the burden on parents.

Across the Potomac River in Loudoun County, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III proposes to raise fees for students to park cars and play sports to ease the burden on the school system's $758 million budget.

They are contrasting responses to the economic downturn pinching public schools and the families they serve.

Montgomery parents rebelled last fall against course fees, which have multiplied in schools regionwide at a time when families, too, are minding their dollars.

In response, Maryland's largest school system unveiled an approach meant to limit such fees. The proposal would take effect in the fall.

Under Weast's proposal, schools could no longer charge for any materials required for an academic course, with a few exceptions for items that go home with the student, such as a ceramic bowl, or go into their stomachs, such as a cake baked in cooking class.

"I think we were able to come up with a fair standard that was both legal and supports our program," Weast said.

Weast estimates the new rules would eliminate 60 percent of middle school fees and 70 percent of high school fees. Schools could no longer charge for workbooks, most art supplies, band uniforms or computer disks. The school system would set a maximum for every remaining fee, and schools could not charge more than the actual cost of an item.

Elementary school "supply lists" also would be shortened. Schools would have to provide dry-erase markers, tissue, paper towels and bandages. Parents might still be asked to supply items for a student's personal use.

The school system would spend $1.5 million to cover lost fees. That funding requires school board approval.

The plan would make fees consistent from school to school and forbid any school from taking a profit, addressing top concerns of parents. Some parents, however, maintain that all course materials -- even cake -- should be provided without charge under state law.

"I don't think it should matter whether it's edible," said Louis Wilen, a parent who was a leader in the fee protest. He refused to pay the $30 fee for his daughter's high school cooking class last fall.

Almost all school systems charge fees, but the rules vary widely. Virginia's education department began a statewide effort last year to standardize rules for fees.

The Loudoun school system is among a few in the region that charge few or no fees for courses. County schools do, however, charge for gym uniforms and parking, and some of those fees might be going up.

Fees for using Loudoun high school parking lots could jump to $150 a year from $25 in a proposal Hatrick announced Tuesday. That move would affect at least 3,000 students and would help balance the budget for the fiscal year starting in July. The school system offers countywide bus service, but a car can be invaluable for students with long commutes in the most rural part of the county.

Student pocketbooks would be dinged several times. For the first time, students would be charged $50 apiece to participate on sports teams. The fee could reach as high as $250 a season in the direst of funding conditions forecast by Hatrick. Currently, there are no such sports team fees. The fees, which would go toward equipment, insurance and field maintenance, would bring in $1.5 million at the $250 level. And the schools would no longer cover $86 Advanced Placement test fees, although low-income students could be eligible for subsidies from other sources to lower costs.

The fees mark a move away from an era of increasing generosity toward students. Most Northern Virginia schools started paying AP test fees during the past decade to encourage participation and remove financial barriers for low-income students.

Fairfax County schools do not plan to increase any student fees in the budget Superintendent Jack D. Dale will propose today, according to spokesman Paul Regnier.

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