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School days, someone pays

Mandatory fees vary among local school districts

Published: Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 9:32 a.m. CDT

School registration time means different things for family members.

For students, it signals classes will be back in session in no time.

For parents, it means the checkbook better be at the ready.

New clothes and shoes, backpacks and pens, pencils and notebooks are part of the back-to-school spending spree. Mandatory school fees are the other, oftentimes-forgotten-until-they-hit-you-in-the-face part.

Across the four larger districts in the Sauk Valley, those mandatory fees vary widely.

Morrison charges the most for athletics at $275 for the first sport, while Rock Falls charges the least at $50 flat for all sports, all year.

Dixon, Sterling and Morrison charge $50 or $55 for band and choir, while Rock Falls charges nothing.

And Sterling charges the most for driver’s education at $250, while Morrison and Rock Falls charge the least at $75 and $50, respectively.

Consider the following scenarios:

– The parent of a freshman who plays just one sport pays $385 in Morrison and $260 in Sterling. ($247 in Dixon and $135 in Rock Falls).

– The parent of a sophomore who plays three sports and takes driver’s ed pays $685 in Morrison and $670 in Sterling. ($547 in Dixon and $185 in Rock Falls).

– The parent of a sophomore who plays two sports, performs in the marching band, and takes driver’s ed pays $660 in Morrison and $645 in Sterling. ($522 in Dixon and $185 in Rock Falls).

– The parent of a senior who plays two sports, performs in the marching band, and parks a car at school pays $610 in Morrison and $395 in Sterling. ($522 in Dixon and $135 in Rock Falls).

– The parent of a student who does absolutely nothing in high school – no sports, no performing arts, no driver’s ed – pays $110 in Morrison and $180 in Sterling. ($122 in Dixon and $85 in Rock Falls).

The big drivers of a hefty bill at registration time are fees for athletics, band and choir; driver education; and extras, such as padlocks or parking.

School districts set their fees every year, although among the four largest districts in the area, fees have changed very little in the past several years.

Most charge a basic registration, tuition or materials fee at all grade levels. (They even charge late registration fees, too.) Most also charge for band and choir participation as well as athletics participation at the middle and high school levels.

Some, such as Sterling, also charge for ancillary things (think the padlock for a locker) to the ire of some parents and students.

Morrison has some of the highest fees, especially for athletics; $275 for the first sport, $150 for the second, and $75 for the third, for a total of $500 for a three-sport athlete.

“Our extracurricular fees are pretty high,” Superintendent Suellen Girard conceded.

Amid a budget crisis about 10 years ago, the community wanted it that way, the superintendent said – for parents of participating students to pay high fees for sports rather than for all district residents to pay more in taxes.

“We don’t nearly cover all of our costs,” Girard said.

To maintain its extracurricular programs, the district spends about $100,000 on top of the revenue it generates from fees, she said.

Rock Falls High School, by comparison, has some of the lowest fees – and perhaps the shortest list of fees with charges for just three things. The school charges a flat rate for sports and nothing for performing arts.

“Our board is extremely cognizant of the economic times, and it has worked to keep the fees down to the minimum,” Superintendent Ron McCord said. “In a perfect world, there would be no fees, ... but with recent revenue cuts, ... all districts have had to look at making cuts and raising revenue, and school fees are a form of revenue.

“Fees don’t account for a lot of revenue, but any revenue is better than none.”

Sterling falls somewhere in the middle, but has fees for labs and padlocks, as well as for students to use their IDs to get into games and performances without paying for each activity.

“Those are probably the most complained about charges,” Finance Director Tim Schwingle said.

Parents whose students do not go to football games or band concerts argue they should not have to pay the $35 activity fee, he said.

“But that fee started back in 2004, so that we could offset the cost of the activities we offer,” Schwingle said.

The district also charges a padlock fee and art, science and home economics lab fees, again, to cover costs (such as damage to padlocks and lockers) the district incurs every year, he said.

Most districts recognize that these fees can present a hardship to some families. Many offer reduced fees or will even waive fees for a student who qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch or who presents a hardship letter.

(Districts are not required to waive or reduce fees for extracurricular activities.)

The mandatory fees are not a large part of most districts’ budgets. But they do matter to the bottom line.

“From an overall budget standpoint, they don’t contribute that much,” Sterling’s Schwingle said. “Some people might say, then, ‘Why do you charge them at all?’ The answer is, they do help. They’re not going to bring us out of a deficit, ... but they do help toward our bottom line.”

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