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Newton

School board debating cuts to student activity fees

Newton families are likely to get some relief next year from the dozensof school fees that students are charged to participate in activities from the music ensemble to the French club, but how much is still under debate.

Anticipating a budget surplus, the School Committee and district administrators are discussing whether to eliminate or reduce some of the fees, which have vexed parents, students, and the city’s politicians for the past several years.

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Administrators have proposed eliminating the fee for high school activities — though not for sports — and lowering the cap on the total fees a family pays from $1,800 to $1,200.

Some School Committee members, though, want to go further, and have asked district officials to explore ways to cut fees for elementary music and middle school activities.

“Our recommendation was really centered on the high school activity fee,” said Superintendent David Fleishman. “This was a fee that has been a challenge from the start.”

Administration officials will present the estimated costs to the district from cutting additional activity fees during the School Committee’s meeting on Monday night.

Newton is hardly alone in charging students to participate in school-sponsored activities. Many other districts, including Belmont, Lexington, Needham and Framingham, also levy the fees as a way to balance the budget without asking taxpayers for additional funds.

‘Nobody likes fees, nobody likes taxes. But everybody wants good schools. Everybody wants program breadth.’

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In Newton, there are fees to take the bus to school and another charge for students wanting to park in a lot at the city’s high schools. An elementary school student has to pay $200 to take small-group instrumental lessons, and a high school student is charged $150 to participate in a school play. And sports at the middle and high school levels all come with their own price tags.

Opponents of fees have long blamed them for sapping participation in activities that should be a part of a student’s public education experience. However, without the fees, providing these activities during tight budgetary times would have been difficult, district officials have said.

According to school district’s records, the fees have had an impact on participation. For example, when the fourth-grade instrumental music fee increased by $50 three years ago, the percentage of students taking the classes fell and has not fully recovered. Participation also dropped after the district began to charge the $200 music fee for fifth-graders.

The administration is recommending that the district waive the additional $200 all-city music fee, which allows students from different schools to play together in ensembles, for students who have already paid the elementary instrumental fee.

A survey of high school advisers also indicates that some clubs haven’t met because of activity fees.

“I think there is a recognition that we need to do something immediately about the fees,” said School Committee member Margie Ross Decter, who wants additional reductions in art and music fees. “I think real relief is needed now.”

School officials need to be aware that some of these fees may be squeezing middle-class families, who may be deciding not to allow their children to take part in some activities because of the price tag, she said.

School Committee members and Newton aldermen warn, however, that it would be impractical to eliminate all of the fees, which are expected to generate $2.4 million toward the district’s $180.2 million budget this fiscal year.

“Nobody likes fees, nobody likes taxes,” said School Committee vice chairman Matt Hills. “But everybody wants good schools. Everybody wants program breadth.” Hills said he is most concerned about fees that are hurting participation.

The school administration’s initial proposal for fee reductions and eliminations would have cost the district $102,200, with the money coming from an expected budget surplus.

But School Committee member Geoff Epstein is pressing for about $300,000 in fee cuts, saying that more of the district’s surplus should be returned to families through those reductions.

The district expects to end this fiscal year with a $1.9 million surplus, about half of which is due to savings on projected health care cost. After putting money into its reserves for emergencies next year and the city’s rainy day fund, which helps reduce borrowing costs, the district would be left with $1.3 million, officials said.

Most of the $1.3 million surplus will be spent on technology purchases, Fleishman said, with $102,200 going to offset the reduction in fees.

These savings aren’t guaranteed every year, and the city’s administration wants the schools to spend the money on one-time investments that won’t cause future budget shortages, Fleishman said.

Alderman Lenny Gentile said he understands that school officials want to plan appropriately for future years, but he hopes that the fee reductions will be significant.

“I don’t know what the right answer is,” Gentile said. “I hope it’s not a minor rollback.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com. Follow her on twitter @fernandesglobe.
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