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Chicago Schools Hike Student Fees As Budget Cuts Continue

By Heather Cherone | September 2, 2016 6:16am
 A change in the way Chicago Public Schools fund special education services left parents confused about whether programs and teachers would be cut at their schools.
A change in the way Chicago Public Schools fund special education services left parents confused about whether programs and teachers would be cut at their schools.
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NORWOOD PARK — For Laurie Viets, the first day of school does not come cheap.

With twins starting kindergarten at Hamilton Elementary School in Lakeview and her oldest son beginning second grade at Beard Elementary School in Norwood Park, Viets will pay $150 in fees for each of her children to attend public school — on top of new clothes, backpacks and lunch boxes.

For Viets' budding kindergartners, the sting is eased by the knowledge that the $150 fee for each will cover all of the school supplies River and Raven will need all year, down to the last crayon or pencil.

But for Canyon, who will attend second grade at Beard Elementary, the $150 fee is on top of an extensive list of school supplies her family also has to purchase by Tuesday, the first day of school.

"That is ridiculously high for a school with such a high poverty rate," said Viets, who is vice chairwoman of the Beard Local School Council. "It is a shame that parents need to pick up the bill for [Chicago Public Schools] being so negligent with their finances."

Approximately a third of schools on the Far Northwest Side are asking parents to directly foot more of the bill for their children's education by hiking fees by an average of $18, according to a DNAinfo Chicago analysis of schools across the Far Northwest Side.

While Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool told reporters that school budgets would "hold the line" and protect classrooms from another round of cuts, schools will get approximately 7 percent less in funding this year for each student in kindergarten through 12th grade as compared with last year, according to the spending plan.

Citywide, Chicago schools' budget were cut by $140 million, forcing principals to lay off teachers, increase class sizes and eliminate programs.

Hitch Elementary School Principal A.J. Stitch said his Jefferson Park school had endured "major cuts" during the past two and a half years without raising student fees, but could not do so again this year.

"It is unfortunate that we have to rely on student fees to pay for basic curriculum and operational needs; however, that is the current state of things," Stitch wrote to parents announcing that the fee would rise from $70 per student to $80. "We look forward to a day when we do not need to solicit families to pay for curriculum materials."

Stitch also asked families who can afford it to pay an additional fee of $20 to make up for the 20 percent to 45 percent of Hitch families who do not pay fees because of financial hardship.

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." Fees are set by each school's principal, who typically consults with the Local School Council.

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 respond to multiple messages about the increase this year in student fees.

Oriole Park Elementary School Principal Tim Riff, who was forced to lay off a teacher and increase seventh grade class sizes because of budget cuts, told parents that funds raised by charging students fees "are absolutely essential to our ability offer the high quality education that we do."

The fee rose $25 this year to $125 for students at Oriole Park Elementary, Riff said.

The school's entire budget is being used to pay salaries for teachers and staff, Riff said.

That means the student fee covers "everything else that we need," including textbooks, workbooks, computers and additional staff like recess monitors, Riff said.

To ease the burden on parents with multiple children, many schools cap each family's fee. For example, families with four or more students at Oriole Park Elementary will be charged only $325.

Other schools are offering parents' an incentive to pay the fee early by offering a discount. For example, the student fee at Portage Park Elementary School rose $10 to $60 this year — if it is paid by Sept. 14. After that, the fee will rise to $75, school officials said.

Student fees began rising in 2013 when CPS moved to a budgeting system that earmarks money for schools based on the number of students, rather than the number of teaching positions, according to a survey by parent-advocacy group Raise Your Hand.

Schools' growing reliance on fees has widened the gap between schools in wealthier areas, like the Far Northwest Side, and lower-income areas of the city, according to the group, which advocates for additional funding from both the state and city for Chicago schools.

Dirksen Elementary School charges the lowest student fee on the Far Northwest Side at $30. But that is in addition to other fees charged to students based on their grade and which classes they are taking, school officials said.

Starting in 2015, Taft High School changed the way it charged student fees based on criticism from parents who disliked having to pay several different amounts. That meant the fee rose from $250 to $395 to cover more costs, school officials said.

This year, the fee went up $25 because of a $500,000 budget cut, Principal Mark Grishaber said.

Sauganash Elementary School, which charges $200 per student — the most of any Far Northwest Side elementary school — did not raise its fee this year.


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