Growing activity fees limit student participation

Parents are convinced and research shows that students who participate in extra curricular activities do better in school and in life.

That’s why seeing school boards increase fees for students to play sports, act, debate and sing is so frustrating to parents who are strapped to pay the fees.

Granted school districts are short of funds, primarily because the state legislature won’t provide the dollars necessary to keep up with inflation. At the same time, voters are reluctant to approve extra tax levies for schools.

School boards are caught in the middle as they face million-dollar budget deficits  and view these activities as “extra” and not basic to a child’s education.

As a result, parents have to pay more, run fund-raisers and even take second jobs so their children can play sports and play an instrument in the marching band.

Never was this scenario more dramatic than in the Lakeville school district facing a $15.8 million budget deficit. In Lakeville, it costs a fee of $600 to play hockey, $440 to play basketball and $300 to participate in competitive cheerleading.

By pleading to booster clubs, doubling fees and cutting school services the district was able to save varsity gymnastics, track and golf.

Weary parents are being tapped out, in addition to paying fees. They are paying school activity fees and booster club dues, to say nothing about the costs of equipment for their sons and daughters.

The sad fact in Lakeville and around the state is kids whose parents can’t afford the fees are not playing, particularly at the junior varsity level.

The very kids that are being cut, however, may be the ones who need sports the most.  Athletic and activity directors will tell you they know many students who would have dropped out of high school if it hadn’t been for sports.

At Lakeville’s neighboring schools, the fees are lower and participation is steady.

Farmington, for example, charges a $300 fee regardless of number of sports played.

What’s the answer? Some will say that schools have to have outside funding to keep varsity athletics.

The Osseo school district four years ago opted to cut out junior high school sports so a full program of varsity sports, some seventh through 12th grades, could be offered.  As a result, the fee to play a sport is $180, and it’s $90 for students qualifying for reduced lunch price and no cost for students qualifying for free lunch.

At Anoka high school, it costs $320 to play hockey, $290 for football, $280 for track and $240 for the fall marching band. These fees are possible because the voters in Anoka-Hennepin passed the last extra levy, and booster clubs continue to provide the uniforms.

Like the districts above, Forest Lake has been forced to raise its fee rates, but not to the extremes seen here. For example, the fee to play varsity hockey in Forest Lake is $298 while football players pay a $263 fee. Participants in basketball and drumline all pay a $315 fee.

Forest Lake’s fee structure also takes into account family budget considerations.

A family will pay no more than $1150 a year in fee for students who are involved in activities in grades 7-12. The family rate is very helpful to families with multiple sons and daughters involved in sports and other activities such as speech and debate.

In Lakeville, an organization called the “Stray Cats,” made up of parents of graduates, helps parents pay the fees. In 2011-2012, “Stray Cats” assisted 50 families whose students played 14 different sports for 22 different teams.

Parents need to lobby their legislators and their school boards to provide funds for these co-curricular programs, and they need to approve extra tax levy questions, otherwise fewer kids will get the benefits of participating in these character-building activities. — Don Heinzman