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High extracurricular fees: Committee sympathizes, but steps remain

School Committee logo, Jan. 23, 2013

 Resident's Town Meeting article seeks $410,000

Arlington's extracurricular fees, even after the School Committee worked to trim them in 2011, remain markedly high, and resident Bill Downing would like to cut them down to size.

For what parents pay for Arlington High football, "Bill Belichick should be coaching this team," he said, a comment that drew laughs from the School Committee on Thursday, Feb. 27.

Including the $425 cost of musical instruments in his pitch, he also said: "Young families are hammered by these fees."

Decision on article up to Town Meeting

Bolstering his appeal were data comparing fees at a variety of area school districts, and the numbers fell on sympathetic ears. But will public-school parents get relief? That depends what Town Meeting decides this spring.

Meanwhile, committee members noted these factors affecting the issue Downing has raised:

    -- The town Finance Committee, which addresses all financial measures, has recommended no action on Article 38.

    -- Downing told the School Committee that he has not yet spoken to Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine, and the board urged him to do so.

    -- In January, after a lengthy negotiation last fall, the town agreed to give the schools an additional $885,150 from the town for fiscal 2015 because of sharply higher enrollment.

    -- Seeking a financial fix via a warrant article circumvents the schools' budget process.

    -- Appropriating $410,000, as Article 38, seeks to do, would curtail fees, but it would trigger similar curs to other budget items.

Fees among state's highest

Calling the fees "Some of the higher in the state," Downing presented charts that included these examples:

* In the Arlington public school, football draws a fee of $500. Burlington and Woburn, which have higher business tax bases than does Arlington, charges no fee for any sport. Pricier Winchester charges $290 for football. More similar to Arlington, Stoneham has a $300 fee for any sport.

* Arlington hockey families pay $700, with a cap of $1,250 for all participation per family. In Melrose, it's $500; Winchester $290.

"At least," he asked the committee, "lower the fees so they come closer to the state average."

Downing made his presentation in an attempt to gather support, and members who spoke agreed the fees are too high.

School Committee members comment

Among the board members, Paul Schlichtman said: "I am intrigued by the proposal," adding there is "no easy fix .... If we eliminate fees, we have to cut elsewhere."

Yet, he noted that Downing's proposal was "starting down the road with an interesting idea." If the schools would pursue an override to cover these funds, "we could get rid of the fees forever," he said.

Later, Downing said he is not seeking an override.

Member Leba Heigham reiterated a bit of the history of the committee's efforts to seek some equity on the issue and concluded that the route Downing suggests -- asking the town for more -- “goes against what the School Committee has tried."

Member Bill Hayner said that when the override passed in 2011, the committee made commitments about future spending. Among other factors, ending the kindergarten fee changed the financial landscape. Making clear he was expressing his own opinion, he suggested that as funds come to Arlington, the town needs to find a way give a little more to the schools.

Member Kirsi Allison-Ampe noted that that the committee requested further information about fees in some sports from Edward Dever, when he was athletics director, but they did not receive it.

She pointed to the extra $885,000 from the town in the light of increased enrollment. "Ultimately, Mass. puts too much burden of property owners to pay for schools via real estate taxes," she said. "I don't want to do this my neighbors," she said, referring to increasing their taxes.

Some of enrollment funds toward fees?

Downing suggested: "Maybe a little [of the town funds] could be put toward the fees."

Member Cindy Starks called the town "generous" and "gives way more" of Chapter 70 funds for education than it need to do. "It's not schools vs. town," she said.

She noted that warrant articles asking for specific amounts -- she cited a request to pay for football helmet in 2011-12 -- tend to "blow up" the schools' budgeting system.

Committee Chair Judson Peirce thanked Downing for the amount of work he has done on the issue.

The committee took no vote on the article. Members said they expected to express their views at Town Meeting.

Parents first raised the issue of high athletic fees in November 2010. The committee and parents worked through the 2010-11 school and reached a compromise that cuts fees.


LINKS:

June 29, 2011: School Committee votes for plan to cut athletics fees substantially

Nov. 9, 2010: Sharp rise in athletics fees prompts pleas for relief


This story was published Tuesday, March 4, 2014.

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