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Education series: School fees: the true cost of a free public education

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Colorado has decreased the total per-pupil funding for elementary and secondary schools by 12.9 percent since 2008. School districts statewide and nationwide are instituting more fees or increasing existing fees to make up for the falloff. Cheryl Soule, parent of a high school student and an elementary school student in Falcon School District 49ís POWER zone, said school fees are becoming more of a burden. ìIt is hard, especially for younger parents who have not quite established themselves in the business world,î Soule said.ìYou have to pay a $20 activity fee, then right off the bat, you are hit with three fundraisers, the Scholastic book sales, school pictures, field trips. That is not to mention the school supplies, which run you up to $50 per kid or more, depending on what your kids need.îFees are charged for most extra-curricular activities and some necessities like transportation.Academic and extracurricular activity feesBrett Ridgway, chief business officer for D 49, said the district made adjustments to the fee structure for the 2015-2016 school year, with a goal to fund each activity with an appropriate level of subsidy from the districtís general fund.None of the extra-curricular activities within the district is entirely self-funding. All of the extra-curricular activities have some level of subsidy from the district, and the struggle is to find the right balance, Ridgway said.ìWe increased the fees but we also started to show differentiation between programs,î he said. ìSome do cost more than others.îAccording to the districtís 2015-2016 budget posted on the D 49 website, of the 44 total academic, athletic and other extracurricular activities, 24 had rate increases at Falcon High School. Falcon and Meridian Ranch elementary schools had experienced rate increases for various activities, while Woodmen Hills Elementary School noted a decrease in music fees. Falcon Middle School increased all of its athletic fees but reduced the fee for the National Junior Honor Society.Similarly, Sand Creek High School increased fees for 23 out of 43 academic and extracurricular activities. Fees at Evans International, Remington and Springs Ranch elementary schools remained the same. Horizon Middle School increased 13 out of 14 activity-related fees.At Vista Ridge High School, 21 out of 42 academic and extracurricular activity fees were increased, according to the budget. Ridgeview, Stetson and Odyssey elementary schools did not change any of their rates, while Skyview Middle School raised nine out of 19 rates.Nanette Anderson, public information officer for Academy School District 20, said fees for sports or activities are meant to supplement the districtís budget for athletics. ìOur administrators work really hard to make sure no student is unable to participate and that cost is never a barrier,î she said.Free and reduced lunch programThe free and reduced lunch program, called the National School Lunch Program, is a federally assisted meal program that provides low-cost or free school lunch meals to students who qualify based on their familiesí incomes, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.Devra Ashby, director of communications for Colorado Springs School District 11, said students that qualify for the free and reduced lunch program often receive reduced rates for school fees, including athletic fees. ìThere is a fee for students who are not part of the free or reduced program,î she said. ìThere is also a fee for reduced lunch students and a fee for free lunch students. The breakdown is meant to help the activities be self-sustaining.îTransportation feesIn recent years, transportation fees have been a hot topic for debate, but Ridgway said the system D 49 now has in place is sustainable. Free and reduced lunch students do not pay the fee for service to ride a district school bus, and the amount they would pay is taken from the general fund as a subsidy, he said.According to the D 49 website, there are options for student transportation fees: per ride at $2.50 each student; per month at $25 each student; or pre-paid annually at $200. The district also caps the transportation cost for each household at $500 per year for monthly payers and $400 for annual pre-payers.According to D 20ís fee schedule for the 2015-2016 school year, students who qualify for free or reduced lunch do not have to pay for bussing, but other students must purchase either a booklet of single-ride tickets for $20 or a pass that allows them to ride for an entire semester. The cost for passes, which varies depending on a studentís location and whether they are in the district, ranges from $50 to $70 per student, with a maximum per-family amount per semester of $200 to $280.D 11 has maintained a free bussing service throughout the district and has added 14 new routes to carry the 1,900 newly qualified students who will be bussed to school, Ashby said.Funding deficitAccording to a Sept. 21 press release from the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs in a lawsuit that claimed the state was unconstitutionally cutting school districtsí funding, ignoring Amendment 23. In 2000, the Colorado voters approved Amendment 23, which requires an annual increase of statewide per-pupil funding for public education.According to the website,, Amendment 23 ìrequires that the statewide ‘base’ in the school finance act be increased by at least inflation plus one percent for ten years through FY (fiscal year) 2010-11 ó and at the rate of inflation thereafter.îThe Public School Finance Act of Colorado was passed in 1994, and it is a formula used to determine that base, according to the Colorado Department of Education’s website.According to, the state Legislature determined in 2009 that Amendment 23 meant only the base amount was covered by the mandatory increase, not the variables. The variables, like cost-of-living or number of at-risk kids in a district, substantially increase the average per-pupil funding a district receives.Using that determination, ìThe Legislature could (and did) cut total spending from one year to the next and claim compliance with Amendment 23 ó despite voter intent to increase funding,î according to the website.The gap in funding from the intended amount determined through the formula of the School Finance Act and Amendment 23 is called the negative factor. îIn effect, the Legislature now decides how much it wants to spend on school finance, and then adjusts the negative factor to meet that funding target.îRidgway said the negative factor for the 2015-2016 school year for D 49 is $20 million. ìBasically, our budget could be $20 million higher than it is,î he said. ìThat is essentially $1,000 per student.îSoule said she is not surprised the state is not fully funding school districts. Lawmakers do that because they can pass the cost on to the parents, who they know will take care of their kids, she said. ìBut what could my daughters do with an extra $300 per year each, let alone $1,000?î she said.

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