School officials working to balance student, family needs on activity fee policy

Focus groups, continued data mining likely until formal recommendation made in January
By Mike McGann, Editor,

Girls' rugby, a club sport at Unionville, already sees its participants paying fairly high activity fees. District officials are working to balance fees to keep them fair, while still generating additional revenue for the district.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — The question isn’t whether there will be an activity fee — most Unionville-Chadds Ford middle and high school students are already paying one — but rather how much is an appropriate amount and where to balance the number between bringing in needed revenue without discouraging students from participating.

That was the focus of a presentation Monday night given by John Sanville, the district’s Director of Secondary Education, updating the public on a process that is expected to lead to formal recommendations to the board in January. The typical student fee is $75 — although with booster fees in major sports, that number might be misleading, while other activities have no fees at all. That lack of consistency is another worry as officials try to build a policy that is fair, but works with the needs of each group and activity. Most district students have been paying a minimum fee of $25 per activity already — which has been district policy.

Much of Monday night’s presentation was a recap of what was shown at the previous week’s board work session earlier this month, which The Unionville Times reported on in detail last week.

Sanville did announce that a micropoll will done on the district’s Web site, allowing for further public input.

Of the district’s 4,100 students — which includes elementary students, about 2,600 are involved with school activities — almost all in the middle or high school. On average, students are involved in just under three activities each.

Younger students typically are involved in non-district activities, youth sports programs, such as the Unionville Recreation Association, and scouting. But those activities have fees, too. As an example, boys youth basketball players in URA’s program are paying $110 to participate in the 2010-11 program, while scouts often have pay-as-you-go badge and event fees.

While the average current fee of $75 might seem like a bargain in comparison, a number of thorny issues complicate the district’s ability to impose uniform fees. One worry is ongoing court challenges in other states that argue such fees run counter to the concept of free public education. And unlike URA or scouts, where paying a fee means a child will get to fully participate, school activities like sports or music are performance-oriented, with participation levels driven by a student’s skills and performance. Some parents might balk at spending money so their child can sit the bench or take a secondary role.

Although the process has taken some time, schools Superintendent Sharon Parker noted that Unionville is still largely ahead of the pack on the issue, noting that at a recent Chester County Intermediate Unit “budget summit” Sanville gave a presentation on the issue, one that was was one of the most widely attended.

“It’s interesting to see how far ahead we are of other districts,” Parker said.

Sanville said that the district continues to work through data it has collected from holding more than a dozen focus groups with parents, coaches, booster clubs, students and taxpayers to try to find a policy that is fair and economically sound. Right now, the district spends about $900,000 on student activities, with less than 10% being charged in fees. During last year’s budget process, the goal was to find an additional $20,000 from activity fees — which didn’t happen, but were made up through other fees including student parking at the high school. The fees discussion came out of last April’s Community Conversation sessions, as various members of the public suggested boosting activity fees to help cope with the current financial crisis.

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