School fees: Necessary evil?

Teachers, board members struggle with additional levies in downturn

On Tuesday evening, Durango School District 9-R’s board meeting was dominated by consternation about money. Lane Gibson, the schools’ chief financial officer, predicted 9-R would receive about $403,536 less from the state for the 2012-13 fiscal year than in the current budget.

Student fees proved most divisive and remain unresolved.

Though Colorado law requires the board to approve of all student fees, this only became general knowledge in February.

After reviewing fees levied on everything from field trips to books for advance-placement courses, Bill Esterbrook, the district’s interim superintendent, put forward a new Student Fee Philosophy. The philosophy would mandate that schools provide basic materials for all classes that are required for graduation free of charge. But schools would remain able to charge a fee for taking elective courses or participating in activities.

J. Burnite and Krista Karpel, art teachers at Durango High School, said fees probably accounted for “75 percent of our program’s funding,” and that their abolition would cripple the art department.

Board members disagreed about the definition of “required” and the obligations of public education.

Board member Julie Levy said she was “very concerned” schools would be forced to provide all the basic materials for required courses “when we’re going through a time of very serious budget cuts. I believe public education should be free in this country, but unfortunately, that’s something that federal and state governments haven’t been able to uphold.

“The fee for a $220 textbook is for an AP course. That’s a college level course, certainly not required,” she said.

Andy Burns said such a distinction was semantic. “To graduate, students are required to take three years of science. But obviously, they’d need four years of science to apply to Harvard, Yale, or any college with rigorous requirements. That class is still required if you’re a low income individual with academic goals,” said Burns.

“We need to ensure that our students are in the best possible position,” he concluded.

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