Wake school fees might boost anemic budget

Staff WriterDecember 9, 2010 

— RALEIGH -- Wake County parents could be asked to pay for their children to play sports, ride the school bus or go off campus for lunch.

Those are among the potentially unpopular ideas school board members said Wednesday need to be considered to help offset the prospect of severe budget cuts next year that could lead to layoffs, larger class sizes and program cuts. They want to see how much the public is willing to share in the potential budget pain.

"We're going to have to make some sacrifices," said school board member Keith Sutton, chairman of the board's finance committee. "The question is who will make them and how much?"

The state Department of Public Instruction was asked by Gov. Bev Perdue to detail how it would cut funding by 5 percent and by 10 percent to help close a $3.5 billion revenue shortfall next year.

State officials have said the cuts could lead to the layoffs of hundreds of teachers and teacher's assistants in Wake, the state's largest school district. Wake school administrators agree that some layoffs are inevitable.

The combined loss of state funding and federal stimulus money could knock $100 million out of Wake's schools budget next year.

In this financial climate, school board members said Wednesday that it is time to consider things that were previously unthinkable.

Sutton said one idea could be to charge students $25 to $50 a year to play athletics, a practice more often associated with colleges.

He said he has also heard ideas such as charging a fee to ride a school bus. Mark Winters, Wake's chief finance officer, said charging an annual fee of $25 could raise $1.7 million.

"These are clearly things - riding the bus and athletics - we expect to be free and provided by our school system," Sutton said. "But in a tight time such as is this, is this something worthy of considering? Is this something that the public is willing to pay to save teachers' jobs?"

If the fees are carried out, Sutton said, school officials would need to set up a way to help low-income families who might not be able to afford them.

Fee to leave campus?

Sutton said it has also been suggested that they look at charging an annual fee for high school students if they want to leave campus for lunch. Many high schools allow seniors and juniors to eat lunch off campus.

Another idea, Sutton said, would be to increase the $170 annual fee that high school students pay to park their automobiles on campus.

To help get other suggestions from the public, both for other fees and for ways to save money, an online suggestion box will be set up by today on the school district's website, www.wcpss.net.

"I do think there's a real can-do spirit in our community," Sutton said. "People understand the budget and are willing to share the load in some way."

Before asking for these kinds of fees, school board member Chris Malone said, the board would have to show the public what has been done to shave off all the fat from the budget. He said board members would also have to show all the things they would like to do but can't afford now.

Malone said the idea of the new fees needs to be discussed by the full board and not just the finance committee.

"I don't know if it's politically feasible," Malone said. "We don't want to lose too many teachers. We have to do something."

On Thursday, school board member John Tedesco called the fee proposals  "ridiculous" and "crazy."

Tedesco said that the proposed fees could result in more parents opting to drive their children to school rather than the bus. He said it would result in bus riders mainly being low-income students.

"In these hard times the answer is not institutionalizing new fees for families and establishing new stigmas for children," Tedesco said.

His alternative suggestions include reducing the number of area superintendents and assistant principals. He's also suggesting looking at restructuring administrative operations and how students are bused to school.

Tedesco is also suggesting looking at establishing a formal foundation to get donations for the school system. It's an idea that was also discussed earlier this year by Sutton, the board member.

keung.hui@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4534

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