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Newton School Committee cuts some student fees

Newton’s School Committee voted unanimously Monday night to eliminate or reduce a slew of student activity fees, saying the steep cost can sometimes prove the difference between a child trying something new and taking a pass.

“I would say this is a significant move,” said committee chairwoman Claire Sokoloff. “There were significant changes made that will have an impact on families, and hopefully make participation in activities increase.”

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After more than an hour of discussion, the committee voted to eliminate the high school student activity fee for pursuits such as newspaper, table tennis, and mock trial. Participation in sports and drama will still require fees. The committee also reduced the total amount of fees for a family from $1,800 to $1,200.

The School Committee also lowered the parking fee for Newton South students from $360 to $310, and reduced the grade 4 and 5 instrumental music fee and all-city ensemble fee from $200 to $150. Also, students who pay the grade 4 and 5 instrumental music fee will no longer be required to pay the all-city fee as well.

Monday night’s cuts went further than the original proposal introduced at the board’s June 10 meeting. It had not included the reduction to the music fee, though it would have made a larger cut to the parking fee.

The changes to the fee structure, made possible by a budget surplus and by one-time health care savings, will go into effect in the fall. The committee will continue to discuss the possibility of more fee reductions for future school years.

“In isolation, nobody likes fees, nobody wants fees that are going to deter children from participating in activities,” said Sokoloff. “And yet every district has fees; we’ve had fees for a very long time. We need to be very careful, if we eliminate a recurring revenue source, that we know what the trade-offs would be.”

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Fees are expected to generate $2.4 million toward the district’s $178.8 million budget this fiscal year, according to school officials. The cuts to the fees will take $135,500 of recurring revenue out of the district’s budget in the next fiscal year.

Superintendent David Fleishman said he was pleased that the committee had struck a balance between reducing fees and protecting the district’s rich programming for students.

“We’re always trying to achieve that balance,” he said. “I think the committee has the same interest.”

The district expects to end this fiscal year with a budget surplus of $922,000, and it also realized $1 million in one-time savings on projected health care costs. After putting money into its reserves for emergencies next year and into the city’s rainy day fund, which helps reduce borrowing costs, the district would be left with a windfall of $1.3 million in its coffers.

Most of the surplus will be spent on new technology, in addition to the reductions in student fees. Sokoloff said the district also expects an increase in funding from the state, which could help offset some of the fee reductions as well.

Several Newton residents braved the pouring rain to listen to the School Committee decide what fees to cut.

Kate Martenis, a 15-year-old freshman at Newton North High School, told the committee about her older brother, Ned, who has played the flute since fourth grade. When he first started, she said, he didn’t know whether the flute was right for him — and the fee could have dissuaded her parents from taking the risk. She read a statement from her brother urging the board to eliminate the music fee.

“Music may not be for all people, but all people should be able to enjoy it freely through the Newton school system,” she read.

Some committee members lobbied for deeper cuts in the fees.

Geoffrey Epstein said that all fees on arts and student activities should be waived for a year, so the district can study whether student participation, which has dropped in some areas as the fees have gone up, would rise again.

He voted for the final proposal but said the fee cuts for the arts did not go far enough.

“I’ll vote for it,” he said, “but I think it’s a sad day for the arts.”

Angela Pitter-Wright suggested dropping the family cap on fees to $1,000 instead of $1,200, and Steven Siegel suggested cutting the music fee to $100.

Other members, however, said there was simply not enough data about the effects of the fees on student participation to warrant sweeping cuts, and cautioned that cutting recurring revenue because of a one-time surplus could become costly down the road.

“The worst thing that I think I could do is overreach at this point,” said the committee’s vice chairman, Matthew Hills. “I would define overreaching as making too many changes based on some very shaky assumptions which we have no way of knowing are true at this point.”

Sokoloff said that while the fees are set for next school year, the committee will continue to discuss the possibility of more reductions in future years.

“If there’s a consensus on anything, it’s a sentiment that we don’t have enough information . . . to make big, big changes, because there’s a lot of different ways that people are looking at how to make the biggest impact given fiscal responsibility,” she said during the meeting.

“We are going to continue this conversation one way or the other.”

Evan Allen can be reached at evan.allen@globe.com.

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