Harford County doubles fees for extracurricular activities

Harford County students will be charged $100 next school year to play sports.

The Harford County school system — one of the few in the state to charge students to play on sports teams — is doubling the fees.

In a meeting that ended early Tuesday morning, the county school board voted to increase the fees students pay to play interscholastic sports from $50 per sport to $100. It also decided to charge students $100 to participate in extracurricular drama productions. Low-income students will not be charged.

Under pressure from the public not to close its three swimming pools and cut school swimming programs, the board instead voted to use $552,000 in its operating fund balance to keep those programs and still balance its budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"Ideally, they shouldn't need to charge the fees. Unfortunately, the current budget situation is such that the money is very tight. I think there is some merit for those who participate in extracurricular activities carrying some of the cost," said Ryan Burbey, president of the county teachers union.

Across the state, school systems rarely charge fees for extracurricular activities. Howard and Baltimore counties and Baltimore City officials said Tuesday they do not charge such fees.

But schools have charged students and parents for a wide range of items from field trips to sports uniforms to Advanced Placement tests. Parents are often given lists of supplies their children should bring to school at the beginning of the school year. Baltimore County parents are asked to buy their children musical instruments for music classes and supplies for school art classes. Parents who cannot afford the supplies can ask the principal for a waiver.

Across the nation, some parents and advocacy groups have mounted legal challenges to school districts that charge fees, saying school officials must provide a free public education.

The attorney general of the Maryland State Department of Education sent advice to school districts six years ago about what school districts can charge fees for. For instance, the guidance says school districts cannot charge for the cost of instructional materials, such as books for required or elective classes.

The fees have been in place in Harford for the past three years, generating about $50,000 in annual revenue, which will jump to $100,000 next school year when the fees double.

One unintended consequence of the introduction of the fees was that more high school students applied for the free and reduced-price school meals program. Those who qualify for the lunch program don't have to pay the extracurricular fees — and the county qualified for more federal aid for disadvantaged students.

Dawn Markovic of the Patterson Mill Middle and High School PTA expressed concern about the fees but said parents would do "what needs to be done" so their children can participate.

"There's always a concern when fees come back to the families. … We pay our taxes and count on the county to supply the school board with the funds that they are requesting to educate the students," she said.

County officials said they respected the school board's decision to raise the fees.

"They are ultimately responsible for decisions within their own budget," said Cindy Mumby, a spokeswoman for County Executive Barry Glassman. The county executive increased spending for schools by $3.5 million for next fiscal year, with most of the money going to increase teacher salaries and replace aging school buses.

"They have very difficult decisions to make," said Harford County Council President Richard Slutzky. "These are very difficult times we are in."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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