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Back To School: Budget Crunch Pushes Public Schools to Rely on Fees

By Heather Cherone | September 8, 2014 8:41am
  Schools on the Northwest Side are making up for budget cuts by relying on fees paid by parents.
Budget Crunch Pushes Public Schools to Rely on Fees
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NORWOOD PARK — Elena Magdaleno didn't expect her daughter Mikailia's first day at Taft High School to come with sticker shock.

Magdaleno, a single mother who owns a graphic-design business and also has a son in third grade, was shocked when she was told she would have to pay $580 to cover a variety of fees to allow her daughter to start at Taft.

"It caught me by surprise," Magdaleno said. "It said I needed to pay $580. I was just blown away."

Cash-strapped Chicago Public Schools across the Northwest Side are making ends meet by asking parents to directly foot more of the bill for their children's education. At many schools, fees can easily reach several hundred dollars — on top of the cost of items on each school's supply list, which ranges from pens and pencils to paper, facial tissue, toilet paper and bandages.

"It is hard to digest," Magdaleno said. "I've already paid taxes."

Heather Cherone says some parents are refusing to pay.


Wendy Katten, the co-founder of parent-advocacy group Raise Your Hand, which has called for school funding to be increased, said Chicago schools' growing reliance on fees has widened the gap between schools in wealthier areas, like the Northwest Side, and lower-income areas of the city.

"The inequity is fierce," Katten said. "The bigger question is, what does it take to have a really great school day? Is this really public education?"

A Raise Your Hand survey last year found most schools had raised their fees in an effort to make up for cuts that resulted from a district-wide shift to a budgeting system that earmarks money for schools based on the number of students, rather than the number of teaching positions, Katten said.

A survey by DNAinfo Chicago found that most elementary schools on the Northwest Side charge between $40 and $200 per student for the "extras" not covered by CPS.

At Beaubien Elementary School in Jefferson Park, which also draws students from Forest Glen, the $50 fee allows the school to "purchase up-to-date materials that the students need to get the best education possible," according to its website.

For Taft students, the fees for "required items" total $250, including a $125 instructional fee and a $45 athletics/extracurricular fee.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. Each class charges a fee — including $30 for all language and literature courses, and a $25 science lab fee.

Students like Magdaleno's daughter, who started seventh grade in the school's gifted Academic Center program this week, are charged another $130 for "field trips and the poet-in-residence."

The form parents of Taft students got at orientation offers to accept payment via cash or money order as well as Visa and Mastercard — and offers flexible payment plans.

"They told us we needed to pay it before the end of the second week," said Madgaleno, adding that the amount she was asked to pay for her daughter was reduced by $40 when she asked school officials to justify the costs.

CPS policy regarding school fees prohibits "discrimination or punishment" for students who don't pay the fee, "including the lowering of grades or exclusion from classes."

In addition, students who qualify as low-income can request a waiver from all fees — as well as students experiencing "extenuating circumstances" at the discretion of the principal.

A spokesman for CPS did not return multiple calls seeking comment about student fees.

Wildwood Elementary School in Edgebrook charges one of the highest fees of a public school at $180 per child. The school raised its fee last year in an effort to smooth out the bumps caused by flucuating funding from the district office, said Principal Mary Beth Cunat.

"We use it as a nest egg," Cunat said, adding that with a school year of about 180 days, the fee works out to $1 a day.

While the school typically uses half of the money from the fees for classroom magazines and workbooks, the other half is used for technology — including software and hardware, Cunat said.

"I always remind parents that it is chump change compared with private school," Cunat said.

Money from fees was used this summer to buy used Algebra II textbooks, after Cunat decided to offer the class for the first time at Wildwood.

"There wasn't money in the budget, so that's what we did," Cunat said.

The school fee form distributed to parents of students at Wildwood asks them to make a separate "voluntary but strongly encouraged" donation to the school's technology fund.

The Edgebrook Elementary School Local School Council voted in the spring to raise its fee to $150 from $75 — and earmark half of it for "our vision of creating a 21st century learning environment for our students," according to a letter from Principal Chad Weiden. 

That's still less than the $200 per student fee at Sauganash Elementary School.

With "the rising cost of supplies and materials and the inadequate amount of federal and state funding, we have found it necessary to collect an annual student fee," according to the school's parent-student handbook. "All student fee monies will be used to purchase instructional materials and to support technology."

At Hitch Elementary School in Gladstone Park, the fee is $70 per student — with the total amount capped at $150 for families of two or more children. The school's website says students who don't pay won't be allowed to participate in extracirricular activities, despite CPS policy.

Even among schools on the relatively affluent Far Northwest Side, the fees vary widely. At Dever Elementary School in Dunning, the fee is $40 per student — and no family pays more than $100 for multiple children.

In Norwood Park, Oriole Park Elementary School raised its fees last year to $100 per student — and $250 for three or more sibilings.

At Ebinger Elementary School in Edison Park, families with more than one student don't get a break: Each student is asked to pay the $75 fee.

The money from the fees could be especially critical at Wildwood, Beaubien, Oriole Park and Sauganash schools, which saw their preliminary budgets for the 2014-15 school year slashed, with the cuts ranging from $83,000 to $183,000. 

Victoria Benson, whose two sons attend Portage Park Elementary School, said most parents are resigned to having to pay the fee, which is $50 per student.

"We're cheap compared to other schools," Benson said.

But when you add in uniforms and all of the items on the middle school supply list — including six reams of copy paper — that means most parents pay between $450 and $800 to get their kids back to school, Benson said.

"If you look at the school budget, it is clear that our taxes only pay for the teachers' salaries," said Benson, the chairwoman of Portage Park Elementary School's Local School Council. "The budget doesn't cover the extras the kids need."

Here's a sample of the fees:

• Dever Elementary School (Dunning) — $40

• Portage Park Elementary School — $50

• Beaubien Elementary School (Jefferson Park/Forest Glen) — $50

• Hitch Elementary School (Gladstone Park) — $70

• Ebinger Elementary School (Edison Park/O'Hare) — $75

• Oriole Park Elementary School (Norwood Park) — $100

• Wildwood Elementary School (Edgebrook) — $180

• Sauganash Elementary School — $200

• Taft High School — $250

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