Sue Roberts did the math.
"On that first day of school, it's going to cost us $338 for my son to walk in the door," she said. "That seems like a lot to me."
Roberts is a caretaker for two sororities at Kansas University. Her husband, Harold, drives a truck for UPS.
Their 15-year-old son, Max, will be a sophomore at Free State High School. He's not planning on going out for a sport, and he doubts he'll have time for the after-school clubs.
"If he did, it's $50 to be on a team, $60 for a physical and $25 for each activity," Roberts said. "School pictures are anywhere from $9 to $45, and if you want a yearbook, it's another $45.
"At some point," she said, "you just have to wonder how much of stuff is getting out of reach for some people. Do other schools charge this much?"
Roberts' concerns are not unique. School leaders have grown accustomed to hearing parents complain that having to pay hundreds of dollars in fees on top of the district's 52-mill property tax levy is just too much. A mill is $1 in tax for every $1,000 in assessed valuation.
The district's fees are, in fact, among the highest in the state.
Programs vs. fees
But school leaders say that's because the school board, responding to pressure from parents, has resisted calls to cut costs by dropping programs and lowering standards.
"What we hear from patrons, especially parents, is that they want a wide variety of options and choice, almost unlimited choice," Supt. Randy Weseman said. "They have high expectations, which I support. But more choices means more expense and a surcharge of fees. I have had no calls asking to roll back programs, only fees."
In Kansas, school district revenues are limited to state aid, local property taxes and fees. They cannot levy a sales or an income tax.
Back to school
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- School fees over the years (.pdf)
- On the street: What is your largest expense in sending your kids back to school?
- Hitting the (check) books
- On the move: Construction at West, other sites sets up busy year
- Busing fee helps offset Lawrence district's costs
- Expensive lessons: Stick to budget when school shopping
- The cost of cool: Trendy gear bumps up school expenses
- Gearing up for high school sports
- KU Today 2006
When state aid falls short of a district's costs and when a district is collecting all the local property tax it's allowed to collect, it has to cut costs, impose fees or do both.
"Those are the tools we've been given," Weseman said.
Since 2002, Lawrence schools have done both.
"To try to make ends meet, we came up with a list of choices - things that could be cut - and asked the public for feedback," said school board President Sue Morgan.
Board meetings, she said, turned into protests.
"We had 300 to 400 patrons telling us not to cut things like junior high band or orchestra, or sign-language classes or intramural sports," Morgan said. "It got to the point where we finally said, 'OK, would you rather have fees?' and the response was, 'Yes, we would.'"
Each year, the fees generate about $1 million - nowhere near enough to cover the different programs' costs.
"They're a partial offset," Morgan said.
The fees have not been raised in four years.
Since 2002, shortfalls in state aid derailed the district's campaign for all-day kindergarten and stalled efforts to raise teacher salaries. Board members still want to bring back all-day kindergarten in 2007-08, and they're expected to offer teachers a pay increase in the next few weeks.
Morgan said the board would love to do away with fees.
"But that's not the question," she said. "The question - it's the question that no one wants to answer - is what are we willing to give up?"
Without the fees, money for the programs would have to come from the district's general fund, which, in turn, would leave less money for teacher salaries.
Roberts, the Free State parent, doesn't want that.
"I think teaching ought to be the highest-paid profession there is," she said.
But how, Roberts asked, can the district say it has to charge fees when there appears to be plenty of money for new buildings?
"It seems a little outrageous," she said.
Weseman disagreed. The construction going on in the district, he said, is long overdue and part of the $54 million bond issue for construction projects that voters approved last year.
"When people look around, they see all this construction going on," Weseman said. "What they don't see is how state funding hasn't kept pace with inflation for years, and how all this work that needed to be done kept getting put off."
USD 497 data
View all the vital statistics for Lawrence public schools: Go Â»
He compared the recent increases in state aid to "starving somebody for 10 years and then giving them a big meal. That doesn't mean they're well-fed."
Also, he said, the bond issue is for new construction and doesn't address many of the district's maintenance needs.
That's why board members last week announced plans to increase the district's 6-mill capital outlay fund to 7 or 8 mills.
A 2-mill increase would generate almost $2 million for maintenance projects and equipment purchases.
The board also announced its intent to push the district's local option budget from 27 percent of the general fund to 30 percent, raising an additional $1.7 million.
At the same time, the district expects to receive an additional $2.8 million in state aid.
That seems like a lot of money to 86-year-old Rex Youngquist.
"It's ridiculous. What more can I say?" said Youngquist, who's backing a new group called Kansans for Common Sense and Accountability.
The district, he said, has more money than it knows what to do with.
Again, Weseman disagreed. "Out of that $2.8 million, we get about $600,000," he said. "The rest of it's earmarked for at-risk and special education programs - that's good, we're certainly not going to turn it down. But it's not like we're getting $2.8 million to spend on whatever we need to spend it on."
Adding $600,000 to the district's $59 million general fund, he said, isn't much of an increase.
"It's less than 2 percent," Weseman said.
That's hardly enough to offset the four years - 2000 to 2004 - the district went without an increase in state aid, he said.
Eighty-six percent of the district's general fund is spent on staff, teacher and administrator salaries.
The school board is expected to assemble its 2006-07 budget - a process that could include reducing or eliminating fees - at its Aug. 14, Aug. 21 and Sept. 11 meetings. All three meetings have time set aside for public comment.
State Rep. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, said he, too, has heard people complain about the fees.
"I tell my constituents it's all a matter of choice - choices made by the school boards and choices made by the voters," he said.
"If the priority is to live within a finite budget, that's one thing. But if it's to offer a multiplicity of opportunities and still live within a finite budget, that's a different thing altogether - that's where fees come in."
In the end, he said, board members will decide what to do about the fees, and voters eventually will decide what to do with the board.
"It's all part of the decision-making process," Sloan said.