Winthrop School Winthrop High School students (from left) Lauren Amaru, Sarah Ford, and Melissa MacNeil adjust stagelights. (MICHAEL DWYER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)

By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / August 24, 2008

A lot of fun – and power – comes with being part of the high school yearbook committee – the layout, the fonts, the candids, and overseeing memorabilia that will be treasured for a lifetime.

At Winthrop High School, about 30 students usually sign up for yearbook at the start of the school year, said Robin Kostegan, assistant principal and yearbook coordinator.

“When they realize how much work it is and how much it entails, it drops down to 10 or five,” Kostegan said.

This year’s participation rate might be even lower, as hard work is not the only price for working on the yearbook, or at any other afterschool activity. For the first time, Winthrop students will have to pay a fee to participate in nonathletic extracurricular activities.

“What’s going to happen?” Kostegan asked. “I may not have any kids.”

Winthrop is not alone.

A combination of expense increases and less state aid has forced area school district administratorsto impose fees.

For several districts, the trend started with athletics. Now, many charge for everything from drama club to parking.

The ‘extra’ in extracurricular – A sampling of schools activities and annual parking fees around the region
  Fee Family Cap Student Parking
Amesbury $50 flat fee per student $800*  
Beverly Elementary Enrichment Center: $460-$920; $195 elementary school band, orchestra $1,200 for enrichment center $175
Danvers $27 fine arts, middle school sports, activities no $5
Georgetown $50 flat fee per student $1,500* $75
Hamilton-Wenham $70-$482 depending on cost of activity no $200
Marblehead $90-$180 high school clubs; $340 drama productions; $100 middle school activities, intramurals $480  
Pentucket $15-$100, depending on the activity no $180
Salem $25 per activity no  
Wakefield $100 per activity; $260 for band, cheerleading, dance $800*  
Winthrop $100 flat fee, per student $1,575*  

*Cap includes sports fees
SOURCE: LOCAL SCHOOL DISTRICTS

In most districts, students who meet a low-income classification don’t have to pay a fee, or are eligible for a reduced fee. Administrators said that for the most part, waivers or discounts are available, on a case-by-case basis, to anyone who can prove a financial hardship.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, estimated that about 70 percent of the state’s school districts have some form of fee in place. The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education does not regulate or track the fees. Parents are or will be paying fees, from sports and activities to parking and buses, and it’s only going to get worse, Koocher said.

“The impact of inflation is not keeping up with the state’s ability to provide revenue,” Koocher said. “Districts are also spending more money on focusing on complying with regulations set up by the state for reporting and testing and paper-filing of reports.”

Underlying concerns from school administrators and fee opponents alike is the creation of a system that could widen the gap between the haves and have-nots, and which may force parents to choose which siblings to fund, administrators said.

And then there is the most common question: Shouldn’t public school be free?

Winthrop is charging high school students a flat $100 fee for an unlimited amount of afterschool nonsports activities.

“We have parents now that are complaining about it: ‘Is there another alternative? I don’t understand why we have to pay for this,’ ” Kostegan said. “I live in the town and my daughter is coming to the high school and I’m going to have to pay. Do I like it? No, but I can’t fault the School Commitee. They had to do it.”

“I go back to the Constitution,” said Haverhill Superintendent Raleigh C. Buchanan. “Education should be free. Thankfully, no one has taken us to court for it. Most importantly, we’re excluding certain groups of kids who probably need the programs more than others.”

Haverhill students pay athletic fees and $25 annually for parking. In Amesbury and Georgetown, students pay a flat fee of $50 for activities.

In Hamilton-Wenham, students are charged the full cost of whatever activity they choose, ranging from $70 to $482, with no family cap.

In Marblehead, high school activity fees range from $90 to $180, and middle school fees range from $100 to $150.

“I enjoy my job, but it’s the most difficult time in my whole career in terms of providing programs for kids,” Buchanan said.

At 7.3 percent, Haverhill’s high school dropout rate is one of the highest in the state, Buchanan said.

Buchanan and his counterparts in other communities should be worried, said Ed Curtin, former Salem superintendent, and most recently an adjunct professor of education at Salem State College. As long as funding is cut and fees increase, “kids won’t participate. They’re going to drop out.”

Salem students pay $25 per activity, with no family cap. Salem’s current superintendent, William Cameron, said no one is happy to pay any fee, and he too blames the state’s funding formula for public schools and its “heavy reliance” on property taxes.

“What you’re seeing is that this is a symptom of the financial distress of public education,” Cameron said. “It’s not an encouragement to students to put fees into place.”

Wakefield High School assistant principal Dennis O’Leary said fees, “a necessary evil,” send a mixed message.

“We tell the kids to get involved in extracurriculars and get everything they can out of Wakefield High School, and on the other hand, you have to pay to do this,” O’Leary said.

“We hate charging the kids to participate. . . . We haven’t experienced a drop in participation, not yet at least.”

The effect of fees on students forced to pick one activity over another is far-reaching, said Ellen Holmes, secretary/treasurer of the association of school committees and School Committee member at the Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District, which has experienced a full cycle of fees, from their introduction in 1999, to the highest in the nation in 2001, to passing an override that abolished them in 2004, and then reintroducing a partial fee this year due to the economy.

“It’s not just, ‘Oh, they missed a season of sports.’ That wasn’t it, and we learned it the hard way,” Holmes said.

“It had an impact on the classroom because it just got into every aspect of student life. The [high school] principal at the time, when he reported back on the impact, it had a lot to do basically with your sense of self.”

Winthrop High senior Sarah Ford, 17, is involved in the school’s Drama Society, and worries that her three younger siblings, at $100 a pop, may not get to participate in everything they want.

“I want them to try everything because when you’re well-rounded, it’s so much better for you,” Ford said. “It does shape who you are; it changes your whole lifestyle.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at [email protected].

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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