For Lori Nation, the mother of four students in Lawrence public schools, the start of the new school year produces sticker shock.
Bus, textbook and activity fees set the family back about $1,000.
"The fees are just getting out of control," Nation said. She and her husband, she said, are "still paying off last year's fees."
Like most school districts in Kansas, Lawrence charges fees.
It's allowed by no less an authority than the Kansas Constitution.
The same provision that requires the Legislature to adequately fund education also prohibits tuition to public schools, except for fees provided by law. Over the years, lawmakers have allowed school districts to charge fees for various costs.
"Fees are not unusual at all," said Kansas Deputy Education Commissioner Dale Dennis.
But that leaves some parents wondering about the old notion of free public education.
In Lawrence, the textbook fee is $72 per year for each student, except kindergartners, who pay $36. Participation fees for sports and other extracurricular activities are $50 per student, and bus fees are $240 per year. There are fee waivers for students who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
The Eudora school district charges no fees.
"We work hard at not charging fees," said Eudora's business officer Peg Buchanan. "The board has felt that it is a student's right to a free public education."
In the Baldwin school district, the textbook fee is $30 for kindergartners, $40 for grades first through fifth and $50 for grades sixth through 12th. The activity fee is $30 per sport per student, and busing is free.
Both Eudora and Baldwin are similarly sized districts, with approximately 1,300 students each, but they are much smaller than Lawrence's system, which has nearly 10,000 students.
Multiple student discount
In the Topeka school district, which has nearly 13,000 students, textbook rentals are $30 for kindergartners, $80 for grades first through fifth, $70 for middle-school students and $75 for high school. There are reduced prices for low-income students.
Bus service costs $300 per student annually, but it falls to $200 per student if a family has multiple students going to the same school.
Nation, the mother of four, would like to see a similar discount program established in Lawrence, where she has three children attending Schwegler School.
She said she would drive her children to school, but her job starts at 8 a.m. and classes at Schwegler start at 9 a.m. She doesn't want them walking to school because they would have to cross several busy streets, and dropping them off for the before-school program would be more expensive than the bus.
Bus fees comparable
But Lawrence's bus fees are in line with similar-sized districts, according to a survey taken by Lawrence officials.
For example, Blue Valley, with a student enrollment of about 19,000, charges a $330 fee per student, which is $90 more per year than Lawrence. Blue Valley does offer a 10 percent discount for the second child from the same family and a 20 percent discount for three or more children.
The cost of sending our children back to school increases each year. Next Sunday, the Journal-World, 6News and World Online will examine those costs affecting parents of kindergartners through high school seniors, including: ¢ A look at what's driving increased public school fees. ¢ Pay-to-play. More and more, parents are having to dip into their pockets so their children can participate in extracurricular activities. ¢ Must-have gadgets are more than just status symbols. Just try doing a school project without a computer, Internet access and a printer.
Olathe, with a student population of about 23,000, charges $195 for the first student in a multiple student household, $155 for the second child and any others are free.
Wichita, with 45,000 students, doesn't transport any child unless they live 2.5 miles or more from school. The exception there is for special education students and those determined to be living in hazardous areas.
In Lawrence, as in many districts in Kansas, the assessment of fees has increased in recent years as school funding from the state failed to keep up with increased costs.
"For three years we got nothing, and one year they (the state) pulled back," said Lawrence school board president Sue Morgan.
In 2001, the district approved a $3.2 million package of budget cuts and fee increases. In August 2002, then-Gov. Bill Graves reduced school funding statewide by $17.5 million - a $27 per-student reduction in base state aid.
Rick Gammill, Lawrence school district director of special operations, noted that the district instituted pay-to-ride in 2002 "as an alternative to cutting service to all students who reside less than 2.5 miles from their school."
But last year and this year, the Legislature, under court order and amid improving economic conditions, has approved $755 million more for schools.
The Lawrence district will get a $2.8 million increase in state funding for this coming school year.
But Morgan said that is no windfall, and at this point it will probably not translate into a reduction of fees. Most of the new state dollars are earmarked for specific areas, such as special education and at-risk programs.
"We're looking at keeping salaries competitive, and covering increased costs, and covering things we hedged on last year," she said.
While she said she understands the frustration with fees, she said it helps pay for services, though the fees don't cover the full cost. The district collects about $1 million per year in fees, including pay-to-ride, textbooks, extracurricular and activity charges.
"It would be lovely if we could reach the point where we could roll some of these fees back, but our situation hasn't changed that much from the situation that pushed us to install the fees in the first place," she said.