In Colorado, Student Fees for Activities, Consumables Frustrate Parents

More school districts in Colorado and across the United States are turning to student fees due to strapped budgets, and parents are worried about having to spend their own money on student activities, according to Zahira Torres of The Denver Post.

Under the state law, school districts are allowed to collect fees as long as those fees do not interfere with a child's constitutional right to a free public education.

Want to play sports? That could cost up to $130 at Adams 12 Five Star Schools. Taking an advanced-placement class? You could pay up to $189 in fees at Jefferson County Public Schools. Need to ride the bus to school? An annual transportation pass in the Douglas County School District is $150.

A review of mandatory and optional fees imposed by Colorado's six largest school districts found that costs for parents and students could include up to $45 for textbooks and instructional materials in Adams 12, $67 for a fire-science class in Douglas County and up to $80 for a high school art class in Jefferson County.

Lisa Ramsey, a social worker who has four children at Adams 12, said that despite a monthly payment plan, she and her husband owe $600 in past-due fees for services and items including transportation, textbooks, physical-education uniforms and advanced courses.

"It's very frustrating since we pay taxes, too," Ramsey said. "I am very pro-public education. I certainly don't mind putting money toward the school because we have cut it so much, but I am having a tough time figuring out why this is all coming back on us."

According to Adams 12 officials, unpaid fees of up to $250 for one student or $500 per family could wind up in collections. Students who do not pay fees would graduate but not be allowed to participate in the ceremony, and while the district cannot stop children from registering, some students could be kept from early enrollment, officials said.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said the practice of charging fees for programs and services has grown over the past few years because of the loss of state and federal funding stemming from the economic downturn. Domenech said reversing the trend will be difficult because even this year school districts had to contend with automatic federal spending cuts through sequestration.

"The way back is obviously going to be dependent on an economic recovery," Domenech said.

Jefferson County Public Schools is the state's largest school district with more than 85,000 students. It requires students to pay up to $130 for workbooks and other consumable items in a high school math class and up to $75 in a high school science class.

According to district officials, textbooks are free to students, but parents have to pay for items such as workbooks. The district collected $19 million in mandatory and optional school fees last year, and the district's charter schools brought in about $4.7 million.

Cindy Vaughan-Sanger, whose daughter is a senior in the Jefferson County School District, said she paid more than $350 in extra fees this year for art supplies, certain books and parking. "I even have to buy some of her textbooks," Vaughan said. "I have to buy some of the books that she reads for English class and stuff like that. They say that they'll have a few classroom copies, but they don't have enough to go around."

Last year, the Cherry Creek School District collected about $976,000 fees for athletics and parking. The school district of more than 53,000 students does not charge for transportation.

Michael Griffith, a school finance consultant at the nonprofit Education Commission of the States, said the implementation of fees at school districts could lead to greater concerns over equity and access. Griffith said the exemptions by school districts don't take into account families that do not meet the income threshold to qualify for free and reduced lunch.

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