No uniform policy on high school fees

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Last June, senior Veronica Mejia of Farragut High opted not to receive her diploma at graduation to protest the school’s high student fees—about $300 for seniors.

Mejia says she couldn’t afford to pay because her mother had lost her job and the family had to depend solely on her stepfather’s paycheck from construction work. “We had to cut down on everything. We were living check-to-check,” says Mejia. “I couldn’t ask my mom to pay the fee. I couldn’t.”

While seniors at Farragut paid about $300 last year, including a $70 graduation fee, underclassmen were asked to pay high fees as well. According to a 2004 fee schedule, Farragut students were charged $252, well above what the average Chicago public high school charged.

Farragut’s total fee included $140 in course fees ($20 per class for a typical seven-class schedule), a $57 activity fee, a $30 technology maintenance fee, and a $25 fee for test prep materials. Optional fees included $20 for a gym uniform and $26 for a yearbook.

Controversy over the fees sparked a protest last fall by students, teachers and community members who wanted a more complete accounting of how fees are spent. Since then, says Principal Edward Guerra, “We reduced the fees about 27 percent. And 60 percent to 70 percent of our kids submit a waiver and don’t pay.”

Still, Farragut’s fees remain among the highest in the district.

A recent Catalyst Chicago telephone survey of CPS high schools found wide variance in fees among the city’s public high schools. At the high end are schools such as Whitney Young, which charges an average of $200, and $165 at Jones College Prep. At the low end are other schools, such as Sullivan and Wells, which each charge $20. A handful of schools do not charge any fees.

Most of the 71 schools contacted by Catalyst Chicago charged fees between $50 and $95.

“We hear from students all the time that they don’t know how the fees are set or what they’re spent for. It’s pretty much a mystery,” says Chris Warden, senior program director of the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform, which conducts budget training for students and parents.

During training sessions, students from different schools often compare notes on school, she adds. “They’ll ask, ‘Why is my school charging this and your school charging that?'” says Warden. “There are just lots of questions out there.”

Not enough accountability?

The district’s guidelines for handling internal budget accounts—which includes accounts funded by student fees—outline specific steps schools should take to set fees, inform parents about how the fees will be used and account for spending. The guidelines suggest that schools form a committee to handle fees, which should include parents, local school council members, teachers and student council members.

Still, there is no central office oversight of fees, beyond yearly audits of internal accounts conducted at random across the system, according to the CPS budget office. And the district does not set any limits on the fees schools can charge.

“Ideally, they should be set according to the cost of what they’re paying for,” says Warden.

Under state law, schools must grant a fee waiver to any student who qualifies for a free lunch or breakfast. The district must also set a policy outlining other circumstances under which students may receive waivers, such as students receiving a reduced-price lunch, significant loss of family income or other emergency situations. Parents who are denied a fee waiver have the right to appeal.

Some principals say their schools take economics into consideration when setting fees, to accommodate families on limited incomes. “You have to understand the community you serve,” explains Principal Anthony Spivey of Corliss High in Pullman, which sets its student fee at $30.

Clemente High in West Town allows students to pay the $40 fee in $1 installments. Families with more than one child at the school receive a $10 discount on the fees for each additional student.

Las Casas Occupational High, a school for severely disabled students, doesn’t charge fees, and often provides students with free school supplies. Says Principal Felix Winslow, “We are public schools, aren’t we?”

Former intern Cherise Lopez contributed to this report