Illinois Statehouse News

Rising school fees result of state's late payments

Friday, September 03, 2010

SPRINGFIELD - This school year, many parents across the state are having to pay a little more to send their kids to school.

District officials throughout the state say they have bumped up their fees to account for late state payments to their districts.

School fees vary from district to district and can be charged for registration, textbook rentals, physical education attire, driver's education, and sports and activities.

State Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville, said state government is not reimbursing school districts for services such as transportation and special education.

Eddy, superintendent at the Hutsonville School District, said these "unfunded mandates" are a major part of the reason why district officials are passing the buck to students and families through fee hikes.

"It all gets back to the idea that we get mandated to the point where the state doesn't come through with its part of the mandated money," he said. "A district has to get money from somewhere if it's going to make up for those non-funded mandates. It would not surprise me to see a lot of increases in fees across the state."

With the state experiencing a $13 billion budget crisis, state government has struggled to make those payments it owes school districts.

Dave Zumdahl, business manager for Winnebago Public Schools, said fees are one way the district can cope with late state payments.

WPS has raised its student registration fees for all five of its schools by $20. That means elementary school students pay $120 for this school year, middle school students $155 and high school students $165.

Winnebago High School also implemented a small hike in registration fees for sports and activities.

But Zumdahl said the district would have to start laying off people to close its budget gap.

"That's the problem with education. It's about 75 percent people costs. It's salaries and benefits," he said. "In order to make a direct impact on the (school's) budget, you have to let people go. And that means class sizes go from 22 to 28 to 35."

Some districts have chosen not to increase fees - not for lack of want, but because of minimal expectations.

The Urbana School District raised fees several years ago to cope with budgetary constraints. Parents now pay $100 for registration, locker and book fees, $40 more than previous fees.

"When 60 percent to 80 percent of your students at some schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch, increasing fees doesn't raise a whole lot of money," district business director Carol Baker said.

Almost 43 percent of the district's 2,000-plus pupils come from low-income families, according to the 2009 Illinois State Report Card, which makes them eligible for the free or reduced lunch program.

Students will feel the weight of budgetary constraints in other ways. The district cut $2 million from its budget and has installed cost restrictions in areas such as transportation. Athletic teams no longer are allowed to travel more than 80 miles for events.

That will not affect popular area sports such as football but has taken a toll on other teams, which do not have ready access to competition. The Urbana High School swim and diving teams, for example, will not be able to travel to the Chicago suburbs for the Conant Invitational swim meet this year.

Baker says the district is looking to generate revenues in other ways, including applying for more state and federal grants.

Illinois State Superintendent of Schools Chris Koch said his state agency also was trying to maximize federal money and allocate funds to school districts as quickly as possible.

"As the State Board looked at the budget, they were very careful to prioritize funding to allow flexibility for districts in using the funding. We were also cognizant in trying to leverage as much as possible federal funds," Koch said. "Those principles are what the board used in trying to ascertain a budget for this year. We're hoping that that mitigates some of the fee charges that might occur."

Margo Empen, assistant superintendent of Dixon Public Schools, developed a new way for Dixon High School students to pay off their athletic registration fees.

Through the district's Student Assistance Work Program, or SWAP, student-athletes help lift heavy furniture, paint classrooms and assist janitors, with their labor going toward their athlete registration at a rate of $8 per hour.

That means a one-sport athlete whose registration fee is $125 contributes more than 15 hours of work. Two-sport athletes pay $200 to register, which means they would work 25 hours.

Empen noted that SWAP teaches the student-athletes about investing in and taking pride in their school.

"We want them learning valuable team skills and life skills that they'll take with them outside of their sports and activities," she said. "And it was just really important for us when we know that our families are struggling in Dixon."

With the state's massive budget deficit and large backlog of payments owed to schools, school administrators gave no indication that there would be any fee decreases.

To help with funding education, Gov. Pat Quinn has supported an income tax increase. Last month, Quinn indicated that if lawmakers pass an income tax increase, then he would consider cutting property tax rates to help ease the economic burden on homeowners.

But school districts rely heavily on local property tax revenue. Zumdahl, the business manager for Winnebago Public Schools, said an income tax increase does little if there also is a cut on property taxes.

"If it's a tax swap, obviously, they're going to give me $1 million and take $1 million away, we're not any better off," he said. "In fact, we're probably worse off because we're more dependent on state government. At least the local people care about what happens here."