Calvert County will require students at its four high schools to pay a $75 annual fee to play on school-sponsored sports teams starting this year, ending a five-month debate over a proposal that had upset many county coaches and parents.

The county also imposed a $10 participation fee for a limited number of other extracurricular activities, such as band, drama club and mock trial team. The need for transportation to events for these activities necessitated that fee, according to Calvert County school board president Gail Hoerauf-Bennett.

Students whose families qualify for free or reduced lunch also will pay reduced or no fees for athletics.

Opponents of the fee argued that students from lower-income families will be reluctant to come forward and admit financial hardship, and participation in athletics will suffer. The school board has asked the schools to closely monitor attendance at team tryouts this year.

The past five months have been "very difficult," said Hoerauf-Bennett, who added that the board will reexamine the issue before next school year. "It's been the philosophy of the school board for a long time that we don't charge families for things we offer. . . . [But] it's getting to the point with the budget that this is something we had to do. We had no choice in the matter."

Hoerauf-Bennett said the board needed to cut $1 million in the budget or slash programs. According to Calvert County schools superintendent J. Kenneth Horsmon, the county hopes to net $125,000 this year from participation fees.

"I think there are no winners here," Horsmon said. "It was something we had to do to help close the budget gap. . . . I'm not happy about it."

Four other Maryland counties impose similar fees: Montgomery County charges each participating student $20 per school year; Frederick and Washington counties each charge $55 per student per season; and Carroll County charges $60 per season.

-- Alan Goldenbach