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Parent blog: We're paying for state funding cuts

Mom of three and Jeffco PTA President Michele Patterson laments the rise in fees at public schools and encourages elected officials to do something about it.

As a parent of three children in Jefferson County, two of whom are now graduates, I have watched school fees rise year after year and seen school supply lists lengthen. For too many of us struggling in today’s slow-moving economy, paying these fees and then spending upwards of $100 for school supplies each fall has become increasingly difficult.

Particularly distressing is moving from elementary to middle school, where fees sometimes triple and can then double again when a student reaches high school, depending on chosen courses and extracurricular activities. My high school freshman’s fees were nearly $200 this year and that doesn’t include the cost for marching band – $500 – or any trips the band might take – at least another $200. High school parents with children in the athletic program, choir, theater or other programs are facing similar challenges. For high school seniors, there’s a fee for graduation that helps pay for the graduation facility and ceremony but does not cover the cost of cap and gown, invitations, etc.

On top of these fees, many families are paying $150 or more per child to ride the school bus to and from home each day.

Nearly a third of Jefferson County students live at or below the poverty level. How are these families expected to pay for these fees? Children who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch are usually exempted from school fees. For those of us who don’t qualify for aid but are still struggling to make ends meet, coming up with even $50 for elementary school fees can be tough.

Know your options

You do have options. Talk with your school’s financial secretary. Find out what fees may be optional and then work out a payment plan. School administrators and secretaries are people, too. They understand the tough times we are all facing and are more than willing to help.

These fees are legal. Colorado state law (CRS 22-32-117) says schools can charge reasonable fees related to textbooks and other expendable supplies. This includes extracurricular sports and other activities. The technology fee, by the way, pays for things like software licensing.

State law also says school districts are not required to provide bus transportation to students. Increased fuel and maintenance costs combined with funding cuts have forced districts to begin charging fees to ride the bus. Without the fees, these districts might have to eliminate bus service altogether. Many districts have looked into outsourcing bus service and, in the case of Jefferson County, determined it to be unfeasible at this time. Children on the free-and-reduced lunch program can apply for a waiver from bus fees.

Public education in Colorado has taken a huge hit, with nearly $1 billion in K-12 funding cut during the recent recession. State lawmakers held funding steady this year but the costs for everything continue to rise. The cuts have meant larger class sizes, fewer resources, the end of much-loved programs and increased school fees for parents. Yes, we pay property taxes to support our schools but like any business, when drastic cuts are made, costs have to be shifted and that means asking parents to shoulder a little more of the burden for those books, supplies and other activities.

The bottom line is without the income from school fees, our children will not receive the same educational opportunities provided to them now. Ultimately, we want our children to have, at the very least, the same choices tomorrow that they have today. Until our state elected representatives resolve to fix the educational funding crisis in Colorado, we – as parents – will, quite literally, continue to pay the price.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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