Districts scale back fees, back-to-school supply lists

As parents get their children ready for the 2016-17 school year, they might see requests for optional student fees, and shorter school supply lists.

School districts are reacting to a November district court ruling throwing out academic fees. Also looming is another lawsuit, which challenges the legality of school fees and those perennial back-to-school supply lists.

The fee issue poses a balancing act for school administrators. They need to balance the books without the money their districts collected from fees. They want to keep programs intact. And they want to make sure all students can participate, regardless of economic standing.

The two court cases

The November ruling gave districts such as the West Ada School District lead time to plan for 2016-17; trustees voted in January to eliminate $600,000 in school fees for 2016-17. The Blaine County School District didn’t wait on the court; the district stopped collecting fees in 2015-16, even before the ruling.

But at the same time, the ruling also gave districts a clear directive.

Resolving a 3-year-old case, District Judge Richard Greenwood said the class fees violated the state Constitution, which mandates a common system of free public schools. And even if districts allow parents to seek a waiver, he wrote, the school fees are still unconstitutional.

“(Parents) should not be forced to choose … whether one child may take advanced placement history or another take heavy duty diesel repair when they cannot afford both,” Greenwood wrote. “Nor should students or parents be required to seek charity, which may or may not be granted, to enable a child to take a class offered by a school district for credit toward graduation.”

The latest litigation — a pair of class-action lawsuits, filed in June — focuses on other aspects of the fee issue.

Plaintiffs are demanding that the West Ada and Pocatello-Chubbuck school districts return fees collected in 2014-15. The lawsuits also challenge the school supply lists, on constitutional grounds. Even an optional supply list confronts cash-strapped families with a “real conflict of conscience,” wrote Robert Huntley, a former state Supreme Court justice who filed the two lawsuits.

Coping with lost class fees

A year ago, high school class fees were commonplace in the Idaho Falls School District. For students who hoped to get a jump on college by taking an Advanced Placement science class, the fee came to $15 to $20 per year. Photography classes ran $25 per trimester. Some arts classes cost $20 per trimester, while some nutrition classes ran $15 per trimester.

These class fees are gone for 2016-17, representing part of a $140,000 budget gap for the Idaho Falls district.

Timing has helped the district fill some of the hole. Seven years after the onset of the Great Recession, the Legislature finally restored “operational” or discretionary dollars to 2008-09 levels of $25,696 per classroom. Idaho Falls is using the boost in operational funding to erase some of its budget gap.

Soon after the November court ruling, Twin Falls School District administrators started scrutinizing the district’s fees. Eventually, the district determined that it would have to forgo $75,000 to $100,000 in fees.

For students in fields such as career-technical education, class fees are a thing of the past. But for students who want to take a dance class, however, fees remain intact. That’s because the district turned dance into a non-credit after-school class — making both the course and the student fee optional.

This is one recurring theme as districts address the fee issue: a conscious shift to optional fees and optional payments.

Searching for options

For fourth-graders across Idaho, a field trip to the Statehouse culminates a year of studying Idaho history. But this year, Twin Falls will have to find some new ways to keep this tradition intact.

In the wake of the fee ruling, Twin Falls parents will not be required to pay for the field trip. Fees will be optional, and the district hopes PTA donations will pick up some of the slack, said Bill Brulotte, Twin Falls’ federal programs, policy and grants director.

Twin Falls isn’t alone. The Coeur d’Alene School District will take a similar approach — asking for voluntary donations for field trips, and working with booster clubs and parent-teacher groups to pick up the difference. So far, the district has not had to eliminate any programs because of the ruling, spokeswoman Laura Rumpler said.

An optional fee can take many forms. In Blaine County, parents can pay $6 or $7 for a T-shirt for P.E. class, or send their child to school with a plain gray T-shirt. Twin Falls will provide shop students with inexpensive pinewood for projects; parents or students can pay to upgrade to mahogany wood.

And when it comes down to a matter of need, many school officials say they have always viewed fees as optional. The Idaho Falls district has always waived some fees, be it for an academic class, sports, band or choir.

“A student was never prevented from enrolling in a class or participating in a program because of an inability to pay fees,” district spokeswoman Margaret Wimborne said.

Shorter shopping lists

Even as the most recent lawsuits work their way through courts, district officials are whittling down their back-to-school supply lists.

Districts such as Nampa and Twin Falls no longer require parents to buy items such as tissues and hand sanitizers — pooled supplies that an entire classroom would share.

This year, Twin Falls also took a generic approach to its school supply lists. The district no longer requests costlier name-brand glue, pencils or markers.

Regardless of the outcome of the lawsuits, school supply lists are a delicate issue.

As the Coeur d’Alene district’s point of contact, Rumpler says she often gets calls or emails from parents looking for help gathering supplies. Past and current trustees have voiced concerns about back-to-school costs.

The district has shortened its supply lists, while stepping up its donation drives. The district has set up dropoff sites at more than half a dozen retailers, and staffers will distribute items at the start of the school year, focusing on students who also qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“This is a clear change for us this year,” Rumpler said.