Resistance growing to hefty school fees in communities west of Boston

Field hockey players at Newton South High, gathered for a preseason practice last month, may face a revamped athletic participation fee.
Field hockey players at Newton South High, gathered for a preseason practice last month, may face a revamped athletic participation fee.
Charlie Mahoney for the Boston Globe

It’s time for some back-to-school shopping of a different kind.

When you go down the aisles of your local school district these days, you may notice that the price for taking part in fall sports at the high school has gone up, or that the middle school has added fees for athletics and other extracurricular activities.

School fees have been going up in recent years as districts across the state try to manage budgets amid shrinking resources, economic uncertainty, and an aversion to raising property taxes. Forty of 47 public high schools in area communities charge athletic user fees, according to a Globe survey, and 13 charge activity fees.

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But there are signs that some communities have had enough.

Newton aldermen called for a policy review this spring after new school fees were imposed for clubs, drama, and other extracurricular activities. The Belmont school district has commissioned a task force to examine its fee structure. Arlington boosted its fees in 2010, only to scale them back under parental pressure last year.

And a $50 activity fee imposed this spring on all students at Algonquin Regional High, whether or not they participate in activities, stirred an outcry from parents in Northborough and Southborough.

“It bothers me that we’re shifting away from the model of a community supporting a school,” said Susan Dargan, chairwoman of the Algonquin Regional School Committee, when the fee was passed. “It’s placing more of a burden on families.”

Belmont charges fees of $450 for the first sport a student plays at the high school, $250 for participating in the high school music program, and $275 for the high school fine arts program. Belmont also charges a $575 transportation fee for those students not legally entitled to ride the bus.

“We’ll be looking at our entire fee structure, including what kind of fees we should have and their fairness,” said the district’s superintendent, Thomas Kingston.  

Kingston said the issue concerns him because of the importance of athletics and other extracurricular activities.

“We are concerned and should be concerned about the entire academic experience, including what type of enrichment opportunities we offer outside the classroom,” he said.

Belmont’s fee situation, he said, evolved from a combination of economic factors, including the large number of sports being offered, improved opportunities for female athletes since the advent of Title IX, and the number of sports introduced in recent years.

“Who knew about lacrosse 20 years ago?” Kingston asked.

He said the district’s budget gets squeezed when students and parents request new programs, and yet spending must still stay within the confines of Proposition 2½’s limits on raising property taxes.  

Faced with a $4 million budget gap for last school year, the Newton School Committee approved a series of new and increased fees aimed at raising an additional $1 million. For the first time, fees were imposed on extracurricular activities such as clubs, drama, and music ensembles. Sports fees also went up.

However, only about $2.3 million was collected in fees for the 2011-2012 school year, instead of the projected $2.7 million, according to a report filed with the superintendent in July. Only 15 percent of the projected number of high school students paid the activity fee, and about 60 percent of the projected number of students paid the middle school fee, causing the shortfall.

Newton’s fees will remain the same this fall, but some officials say the issue should be revisited.

“Philosophically, over time I’d like to see us decrease our reliance on them,” said School Committee member Steven Siegel, though he acknowledged that the budget is tight. He said he believes the city is now charging for things that are part of the core academic mission, such as the fourth-grade instrumental music program.

“We’re charging a fee for something that’s happening during the school day,” he said.

Alderwoman Amy Sangiolo said the Board of Aldermen’s resolution in June calling for a review of the school fee structure shows there is some discontent with the present policy.

“We’re educating the whole child, and there are basic skills to be learned in other activities such as sports, health and wellness, and music,” she said. “They’re considered luxuries, and they’re not.”

Sangiolo said fees can reduce the accessibility of school sports and activities.

“Like it or not, there’s still a stigma involved in asking for financial assistance,” she said. “I’m not suggesting the schools aren’t sensitive or don’t sympathize with parents struggling to pay fees. But I know children who won’t ask their parents to pay the fees.”

As all districts do, Newton offers a waiver process for the fees it imposes, except for parking. The School Committee also instituted a “super cap” of $1,800 per family, which applies to all fees except the elementary early morning program, preschool tuition, school lunches, and parking fees.

“We’re trying to work with parents who have trouble paying the fees,” said Sandra Guryan, deputy superintendent and chief administrative officer for the school district.

She said the district is tracking data on participation in clubs and activities to see whether the fee increases have had an effect on participation.

Scott Perrin, athletic director at Newton South High School, said that participation in varsity and junior varsity sports programs at the high school held steady last year, despite the fee increases, and that there were increases in some areas, such as wrestling and hockey.

“We did get some new requests for waivers, and we were able to help the students,” he said.

Arlington High parents have been complaining about high athletic fees since the School Committee more than doubled some fees in spring 2010.  

In June 2011, the board dramatically cut most of the fees; cross-country, for example, went from $480 to $100.  

The school still has the distinction of having the highest one-sport fee among area communities, charging $700 for hockey. Those playing football this fall for the Spy Ponders will pick up a $500 tab.

In Westborough, the School Committee increased the high school and middle school activity fees for this school year to $200 per activity or sport, with an expanded family cap of $500.  

Formerly, the fees were a flat $185 for high school students and $135 for middle school students, with a $185 family cap.

“We hadn’t raised fees in a while,” said Ilyse Levine-Kanji, the School Committee’s chairwoman.

The committee has not had a lot of pushback on the increases, she said. “I think people prefer to see the increases, instead of seeing activities cut back.”

She said parents are accustomed to paying fees to have their children participate in youth sports and other activities. The increase was expected to generate an additional $107,000 above the current intake of nearly $124,000.  

It was a relatively small amount, a $50 activity fee, that stirred controversy when it was passed this spring at Algonquin Regional High, which serves the towns of Northborough and Southborough.  

That is because the fee was levied on all students, even those who chose not to be involved in any activities.  That led to blog posts calling the $50 a tax, not a fee.

Dargan, who was chairwoman of the Northborough-Southborough Regional School Committee when the fee was passed and is still on the committee, called the fee a “budget gimmick” instead of a fair way to fund activities. Despite the waivers, she said, the fees are not based on a family’s ability to pay, nor are they deductible, as are property taxes.

Dargan wonders what is in the future for fees for activities considered part of the high school experience. “Once you open that box and set a precedent, it’s easier to continue down that road,” she said.

The idea of fees also bothers her because so many parents in Northborough and Southborough already contribute mightily to the schools with their time and money, she said.

“Are we going to have to buy books next?” she asked. “It’s a troubling trend.”