Student fee payment varies widely across Waukesha County
Definition of 'indigence' disputed at district, state level
Although the Wisconsin Constitution enshrines in Article X the right of children to enjoy a free education without the charge of tuition, parents might have a hard time believing it.
Local parents will pay, on average, $70 in school fees to enroll a child in the fifth grade this year, and costs typically increase as the child gets older. By 11th grade, parents will dish out $220 on average to local high schools for a child who participates in at least one athletic program. Those averages do not include the cost of a student parking pass, music instrument rental fees or class fees, which can range anywhere from $6 to $50 dollars per class.
Susan Graham, chief business director in the Kettle Moraine School District, said that the school works diligently to keep costs down, and school fees rarely cover the actual costs of materials supplied to students. She estimates that the material costs for a student's basic education is about $125. KM charges students a base academic fee of $69 in elementary school, $65 in middle school and $83 in high school.
Then there are the student fees that districts waive, either because payment is never made (a small percentage, Graham said) or because the student is determined to be "indigent."
"Our budget is already tight," Graham said. "It means we have to manage that on our end."
The school districts surveyed for this story include Arrowhead (a union high school district), Hamilton (K-12), Oconomowoc (K-12), Pewaukee (K-12), Lake Country (K-8), Hartland-Lakeside, Kettle Moraine (K-12) and Waukesha (K-12).
How are fees determined?
The process for determining how school fees are assessed is fairly uniform throughout the districts. John Gahan, chief financial officer in the Pewaukee School District, said school fees are reviewed as part of the annual budget development process. School officials establish a rough estimate of the district's consumable costs — paper, workbooks, pens, ink, etc. — to determine where costs can be reduced.
"When and where possible, we work with state vendors," said Beth Sheridan, director of business services in the Oconomowoc Area School District.
The Department of Public Instruction (DPI) states on its website that school districts can only assess fees that are "supported by the actual cost of the provided service."
For instance, a general fee of $30 per student to cover miscellaneous school supplies would probably not be legal, the website states. Those fees must be tied directly to the costs of the items that are being purchased.
Gahan said that districts also take into account comparable districts' fees and other general economic factors that could affect families.
School officials then present the fee assessment to the school board, which adopts it as part of the overall annual district budget.
Where the issue becomes complicated, and districts diverge the most, is how to determine whether a student is eligible to have academic fees waived because of "indigence."
According to the DPI, "indigent" students must be provided the majority of what typically makes up the core of academic fees: textbooks and "school supplies." Districts must also cover the costs of Advanced Placement tests for indigent students.
So what does indigent mean? That depends on who you ask.
Webster's dictionary defines indigent as "in poverty; poor; needy; destitute."
Most districts surveyed, with the exception of Hamilton and Waukesha, define the term more broadly and will typically waive academic fees for families that qualify for free or reduced lunch, as determined by the National School Lunch Program.
Arrowhead Superintendent Craig Jefson said the district automatically waives all fees — academic and athletic — for students who are eligible for free/reduced lunch.
"Typically we want to work with the families; we certainly understand if they are struggling", he said. "The goal of the board is not to disqualify anybody just because of their circumstances."
That is easier done at more affluent schools, such as Arrowhead, which was not enrolled in the federal school lunch program until the 2010-11 school year because of low qualification rates.
Arrowhead enrolled in the program, Jefson said, because of a growing free/reduced lunch population, partly the result of the financial crisis in 2007-08.
Free/reduced lunch population
Indeed, districts surveyed saw a 5.7-percent average overall increase in their student free/reduced lunch population, according to the DPI. The Hartland-Lakeside School District saw the highest increase, from 13 percent of students in the 2008-09 school year to 24.7 percent in 2012-13. Less than 2.5 miles away, the Lake Country School District has seen the lowest free/reduced lunch population increase, from 4 percent in 2008-09 to 5.7 percent in 2012-13.
A district's generosity in defining "indigence" can create a significant financial burden. If Hartland-Lakeside were to waive its $75 student fee for every student who qualifies for the federal program, it would lose $21,675 annually. The DPI does not reimburse districts that waive student academic fees based on indigence, DPI Communications Director Patrick Gasper said via email.
The Waukesha School District, which has one of the highest student free/reduced lunch populations in the county at 39 percent in 2012-13, would lose anywhere from $274,680 to $412,020 if it waived fees for all students who qualify for the lunch program. The Waukesha School District saw an 11-percent increase in students eligible for the program between 2008 and 2012.
Bryan Ruud, assistant superintendent of business services at Hamilton, said via email that the district never automatically waives fees. Fees may be waived, but that does not occur without significant communication with school administration.
"Our philosophy is to work with families to make payments within their budget," he said.
Waukesha School District policy states that the district will waive student fees for homeless and indigent students, according to the district definition and state and federal laws.
However, a district definition of "indigent" could not be found in the district's policies, and even the state has had difficulty defining the term, according to Gasper.
The closest state statutes come to defining "indigent children" in regard to school finance is as follows:
"The principal or teacher in charge of any public school shall report ... the name and address of any child in the school whose parent, guardian or other person having control, charge or custody of the child is without sufficient means to furnish the child with food or clothing necessary to enable the child to attend school."
In fact, Gasper said, school districts are not permitted to directly use the Free and Reduced Price Lunch (FPRL) status of a child outside of the lunch program itself. So districts are directly prohibited from using FPRL to determine a student's status as "indigent" for the purpose of waiving school fees.
However, schools can use the same income guidelines as the FPRL program in a separate application form.
Delinquent fee payment
School officials said it's rare for parents to shirk their child's fee payments, but districts are prepared for when it happens.
"That's a fun topic," joked Sheridan. "We've evolved. We used to, way back when, send out paper statements."
However, with school fees increasingly moving online, most past due notices are sent via email.
"We try to make an effort in-house to collect fees, without much success," Sheridan lamented.
After Dec. 1, roughly three months after payments are expected due, most school districts turn to the Collections Division of the Waukesha County Department of Administration.
The Collections Division was created in 1994 to centralize administration of collecting on delinquent accounts for Waukesha County and other government entities in the state.
According to the division's website, collection tools include letters, telephone calls, in-person interviews, credit bureau notification and litigation.
"Every year we collect about the same amount, so I don't think the problem's getting worse," Sheridan said.
Gasper said the department does receive calls from parents with questions, and occasionally complaints, about student fees, but he noted that the DPI has no statutory authority to investigate complaints.
Jefson said he understands parents' concerns, but districts would be severely limited if it were not for fees.
"You want us to offer this, and we want to charge for it; otherwise we can't offer it," he said. "What do you want me to do? There is not a lot of cash laying around. We don't have $100,000 laying about."
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