Although it was repealed by the Harford County Board of Education in January, the controversial "pay-to-play" fee charged to families of students participating in interscholastic sports will be back for the 2014-15 school year, as school officials question whether the athletic program is needed at all.
Looking at ways to raise revenue to cover gaps between what they have determined is needed to run the school system and what funding authorities provide, the school board agreed Monday to impose a $50 fee for students to play interscholastic sports each season, as it approved a $426.5 million operating budget for the next school year.
Students who are eligible for the federal Free and Reduced Meal program, or FARMs, will not have to pay the fee, but unlike this year, children of Harford County public school teachers will have to pay to play, as will children of active duty military, a school system spokesperson said Wednesday.
One other change from the 2013-14 school year version is the elimination of the $25 fee to participate in clubs and other non-athletic extracurricular activities.
The play-to-pay issue also sparked a discussion Monday among board members and Superintendent Barbara Canavan about whether the school system should keep funding an athletic program.
"The funding, year after year, has not been what we need to do what we need to do first, which is to educate students," board member Cassandra Beverley said. "I'm wondering if we really need to be having a frank conversation with our community [about] whether we can have athletics."
School system budget officials project the athletic fee will raise $264,500 by itself; however, they also say they believe the fee helped raise more state money for the school system this school year, because it prompted more students from lower income families to apply and qualify for FARMs.
Ed Fields, budget director for HCPS, noted during Monday's school board meeting that 675 students were added to the FARMs rolls during the 2013-2014 school year, the first year of the pay-to-play fee. The additional students meant the Maryland State Compensatory Aid allocation for FY2015 increased by more than $1.5 million compared to the current fiscal year.
The state will allocate $32.7 million in compensatory aid for FY2015, compared to $31.1 million allocated for FY2014, according to school system budget documents. The state is allocating $194.04 million total for FY2015, which is still a net loss of $35,100 compared to the current fiscal year.
School system spokeswoman Lindsay Bilodeau wrote in an e-mail Tuesday the compensatory aid goes toward the operating budget.
School budget officials have said in multiple board meetings that Harford County schools have lost state money overall because of the state's wealth formula that is used to determine how much education funding to give each county – the less wealthy a county is, the more state money is provided to make up the difference in local funding.
Parents and students spoke against the fees at board meetings during the first half of the school year, and the board repealed both fees when members voted on Canavan's 2015 budget request in January.
Board member Alysson Krchnavy put forth an amendment in January to repeal the fees.
"This was never a thing that I felt was necessary in the school system, and I have repeatedly fought this fee along the way," she said Monday.
Krchnavy noted that she could not "remember" reading in the many public comments, which have come to her as the FY2015 budget is developed, anything against the fees, however, and parents in high school PTSA meetings told her " 'My kid pays more for that in shoes.'"
She also asked Fields how many positions would be saved with the fee revenue; Fields said it would be about five.
"I don't like the athletic fee any more than a large number of parents do, but I understand that it is a critical measure to cover the shortfall, at least in part, and to save some teacher positions," board member Arthur Kaff said.
As for the $25 fee to participate in clubs and non-athletic activities, it was eliminated because it wasn't producing significant revenue, according to Canavan and Fields.
"There were so many extracurricular activities that were connected to classroom instruction that we were not really collecting a substantial enough amount of funding, and it simply was not worth it," Canavan told the board.
Joseph Schmitz, executive director of middle and high school performance, noted students had been discouraged from activities, such as honor societies that "frequently lead to scholarship opportunities," because of the activity fee.
In response to Beverley's comment about athletics, Canavan said officials have had at least two "informal meetings" about the same issue, and they will take on "a little research project" once the school year ends to determine how surrounding counties and states have handled their athletic programs in the face of scarce funding.
"More importantly, we're looking at, 'How are you maintaining athletics?' " she explained.
The superintendent described the issue as a "conundrum."
Monday's board meeting included recognitions for the Fallston High School boys lacrosse team, which won the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association's 2A/1A state title for 2014, and teams from a number of other schools that earned Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference sportsmanship awards for the spring season.
"The conundrum comes about with the fact that you really want to take care of the whole child, and you also want to give children an opportunity for scholarships," Canavan said.