Harford County Public Schools will soon launch an online payment portal, which will allow high school parents to submit their new "pay-to-play" fee payments for children participating in interscholastic sports and other activities.
Fall sports practices for some teams across the county began on Wednesday, but the school system had not begun collecting the controversial fee from participants and won't until varsity and jayvee rosters are set.
School officials will unveil a page on the main school system website, http://www.hcps.org, on Wednesday, and notification will be sent to high school parents, Teri Kranefeld, the school system's manager of communications, wrote in an e-mail Wednesday.
"As of that date, only athletics fees will be accepted as [other extracurricular] activities have not yet commenced," Kranefeld wrote.
Classes for students in kindergarten through 12th grade are scheduled to begin Aug. 26. Kranefeld stated in her e-mail that parents of elementary and middle school children "will be notified after school begins when the activity fee payment portal is launched."
In June, members of the Harford County Board of Education approved a $50 per-sport fee to participate in interscholastic athletics and a $25 per-activity fee for extracurricular activities, such as clubs, as part of a series of measures to reconcile the budget for the upcoming school year. The board acted after its request for more than $21 million in additional county funding was reduced by the county executive and county council, leaving a $20 million gap in the new school budget.
To make up some of the shortfall, the board instituted pay-to-play and cut some bus services, moves that have been unpopular with many parents. The moves will produce only a small fraction of the money school officials say they need.
Parents and students have expressed concerns during subsequent board meetings that the fees would force families to shoulder an extra cost, several hundred dollars for children who participate in multiple sports and extracurricular activities, and keep students from taking part in sports and activities that, in some cases, are vital for students staying in school and achieving academic success.
Tara Larkin, head coach for varsity girls' soccer at Aberdeen High School, had 31 hopefuls on the field for her first practice Wednesday afternoon, and 12 more who were absent. She plans to have a roster of 17 varsity and 17 junior varsity players, 34 all together.
Larkin said those who try out do not have to pay the fee, which will be charged once the final rosters are released.
Larkin described the process as beneficial for those who might not see a great deal of playing time "and decide it's not worth it to pay $50 for the season."
"If they come out for the first couple of days and soccer's not for them, they can choose something else to participate in... before they pay the fee," she explained.
How to pay
Parents can pay the fees online through the MySchoolBucks portal, which was previously called Cafe Prepay and is the method for paying fees for meals in the school cafeterias, Kranefeld explained.
"However, no payments are to be made until official rosters are released by coaches or activity sponsors as refunds will not be available," Kranefeld continued, echoing what Larkin said.
"The website will also announce the deadline for payment for each of the three sports seasons and activity fees are to be paid within a week from the official roster announcement by the sponsor," Kranefeld explained.
The school board members also approved fee waivers for three groups of students: those who qualify for FaRMS, or Free and Reduced Meals, those with parents in the active-duty military and those whose parents are teachers, Kranefeld wrote.
Kranefeld stated applications for waivers and FaRMS, and more information about the waiver "approval process," will be on the school system website next week.
"Failure to pay the fee by the due date will result in holding that participant out of contest(s) until payment is rendered," Kranefeld wrote in a follow-up e-mail Thursday.
Students whose fees have not been paid two weeks past the "first official play date" will be suspended from their teams until their families make the payment or their waivers are approved, Kranefeld wrote.
Staffers in the schools' offices and athletic departments will work with the school system's Budget Office to monitor the payments, she explained.
Reports of the payments through the online portals will also be provided to coaches and sponsors.
"The payment method, whether paid online or approved for a waiver, will be kept private," Kranefeld wrote. "The coach will only know whether the fee has been satisfied for each individual participant."
In late July, Kranefeld said that school officials projected the sports fee would raise $264,500 in revenue, with 5,290 participants, and the activity fee would raise $285,500, with 11,420 participants.
School leaders also expect to save $890,000 by consolidating some bus routes, moves that will mainly affect high school students who attend countywide magnet programs and those at four elementary schools, whose schedules have been changed so fewer buses are used.