Back-to-school season means buses, backpacks and buying.
Though a recent National Retail Federation survey demonstrated that U.S. families are averaging a 7.82 percent decrease in back to school spending this year, down to $634.78 from $688.62 in 2012, retailers are still expected to rake in $26.7 billion from families equipping their students for the academic year.
That number doesn’t even include school fees, which states including Iowa allow school districts to charge students for supplies that they’ll use over the course of the year.
After a decade of stable rates, the Cedar Rapids Community School District is in the first of a three-year plan to increase instructional material fees by 5 percent annually. That translates to an additional $4 for high-schoolers, $2 for middle-school students and $1 for elementary learners each year through 2015-16.
“Ten years is a long time to not increase the fees, so clearly over time, yes, inflationary costs have taken their toll,” said Steve Graham, executive director of business services for the Cedar Rapids schools. “We’re looking to balance a budget, and I believe that was the only item in the budget that was revenue we could generate.”
In its first year, the increase is projected to provide an additional $19,913 for the district’s general fund. It also means that families who have registered their children to attend classes in the school system this year are paying $83 for a high-school student, $48 for a middle-schooler and $25 for a learner attending an elementary building.
Families in need
Administrators cannot deny education to students who do not pay the fees, and the law requires that districts must waive fees for families who demonstrate financial hardship, such as students who qualify for free school meals and learners who are in foster care. Districts also must grant partial waivers, or reduced fees, for families who qualify for reduced-price meals or otherwise show need.
“When I pay those fees, what I think about is that my family can afford them,” said Sally Hoelscher, a member of the Iowa City Community School District’s school board and mother of a daughter who attends Iowa City High School. “There are those who are on the borderline, and for them it’s a real hardship. I think it’s just unfortunate that (legislators in) our state and our country don’t view education as enough of a priority to really fund it.”
The dollars go toward supplies that must be replaced annually for student use. Iowa Administrative Code states that school boards can collect fees “for course offerings and related activities,” but the language does not specify what supplies and materials for which families can be charged.
“The law is very general, and it doesn’t give examples,” said Su McCurdy, Administrative Consultant for the Iowa Department of Education’s Bureau of School Finance, Facilities, Operations and Transportation Services. “It’s up to (school districts) to determine that it is in fact a supply and that it is in fact a legal item they can charge for.”
The department does provide a list online of common items and whether or not districts can charge parents for them through school fees. These include protective devices for eyes and ears (yes), field trip costs (no) and diplomas (no, however districts can charge for diploma covers).
The department does not track fees across districts or from year to year, and because it is up to school boards to determine what they want to charge for, it’s difficult to compare fairly between school systems. McCurdy said some districts may reuse items like goggles each year, which would mean that they would not have to charge families for them.
One rule consistent throughout the state is that districts are not allowed to profit or overcharge families for fees.
“It’s the district’s responsibility to know the law and behave within the law,” McCurdy said. “The calculation has to be on cost.”
Iowa City schools
School fees also have increased in the Iowa City schools. The annual textbook rental cost has gone up by $5 for kindergarten through sixth grade, as well as the high schools, and $10 for the junior high schools. The district’s elementary school students also will have to pay $3 for a student planner, a cost which was not assessed in 2012-13 and is included in older learners’ textbook rentals.
“As a parent, it’s hard to pay that amount of money at the beginning of every school year,” Hoelscher said. “As a school board member, I know that the money that we get from the state is not what we’d like it to be. It’s expensive to educate our students in our district.”
Similar sentiments from McCurdy indicate that the Iowa City school system isn’t the only place where education comes with a high price tag.
“(Districts) are feeling a financial pinch,” she said, also citing insufficient education funding from the state. “It’s just expensive to provide quality education and I think districts are struggling to try and find creative and legal ways to supplement their budgets.”