Parents could be spared paying textbook fees for their junior high and high school students under a plan pitched Wednesday to lawmakers.
A Utah School Boards Association task force has recommended that school districts relinquish the practice of collecting fees for textbooks. The state would be asked to provide $50 per student, roughly $11 million a year, to compensate for the lost revenue.A few districts charge up to $50 a year. Statewide, the average hov-ers around $24.
School fees are the bane of a parent's pocketbook, Steven Baugh, superintendent of the Alpine School District, told members of the Legislature's Education Interim Committee.
"Any time there's a gathering (of parents), there's a great deal of concern expressed about school fees," he said.
Each fall, parents of secondary students face paying at least $50 in required fees to enroll their children in public schools. Required fees are those charged for books, locker rentals and activity fees. Some textbook fees are refunded at the end of the school year.
If a child participates in sports or other optional activities, fees can escalate into the hundreds of dollars.
Some districts establish payment plans for parents whose incomes are too high to qualify for fee waivers yet they need to pay for the activities. Some districts employ collection agencies to gather the funds.
If lawmakers agreed to provide specific ongoing funding for textbooks - not formulate it into the weighted pupil unit - the school districts would agree not to raise other fees to compensate for the loss of textbook fees, said state deputy superintendent Laurie Chivers. School districts now assess about $5 million in textbook fees among students who are eligible to pay. Some schools report that 15 percent to 20 percent of parents who do not qualify for fee waivers are not paying their children's fees.
The task force suggests eliminating "nonrefundable" fees first, then phasing out other fees as legislative funding commences.
Rep. Tammy Rowan, R-Orem, recommended that each school district be appropriated $50 per secondary student for fee reductions, regardless of how much they charge in textbook fees. Districts would first eliminate textbook fees and if there was money left over, they would do away with other instructional fees, such as those charged for lab classes.
Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, said parents, local school boards, the Utah High School Activities Association and legislators each have a role in addressing the school fees issue.
The activities association, for instance, could work to reign in costs. Local school boards could authorize fewer student trips, said Allen, who is a former Davis County school board member.
"I want to know my sister and brother governmental organizations are taking hold of this problem, even when it means a lot of criticism - and it will," she said.
Rep. Lamont Tyler, R-East Millcreek, remarked that the task force recommendation represented a shift from user fees to state tax money for textbooks. The state public education budget is funded primarily by income tax.
Some consider the textbook fees a form of a head tax. While large families may be strapped to pay school fees, they do receive income-tax relief.
Utah voters in 1986 authorized school districts to collect fees from students in grades 7-12 as a means to bolster budgets without raising taxes.
Fees for books or school-sponsored activities, including uniforms and trips, may be waived for families who receive government assistance or are otherwise economically distressed.
Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, cautioned that textbook fees are a local school board issue. Each district receives some textbook funding through the WPU, the state's basic funding formula for public education.
Some districts elect to set some of that funding aside for books and supplies, which means offering teachers smaller pay raises than their counterparts in districts that charge textbook fees.
Hillyard argued that the funding scenario recommended by the Utah School Boards Association task force would impact school districts differently. He recommended that task force members bring more information to the Education Interim Committee. The committee concurred. The issue will be revisited when the legislators meet in Cedar City in July.