SCARBOROUGH — As more Maine school districts begin charging students fees to participate in sports and extra-curricular activities, some people are questioning the legality of the charges.
“A public education should be free,” said Mike Gilbert, the father of four children who attend Scarborough schools.
Gilbert believes the fees charged by Maine schools are unconstitutional and is pushing legislators and the Maine Department of Education to remove them.
His action follows a successful challenge to fees in California.
Last September, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil lawsuit against the state of California challenging some school districts’ use of fees to cover the costs of activities and, in some cases, charging for textbooks and in-class materials.
On Dec. 9, 2010, the ACLU reached a settlement with the state that bans the “pay to participate,” or two-tiered free/fee system. It also forced school districts that had been charging the fees to reimburse parents or incur a financial penalty.
“This is not just a Scarborough issue,” Gilbert said. “Everybody’s getting tired of getting fee’ed to death.”
Gilbert, who paid $550 this year for his children to participate in activities, cited a Maine law that says all students between ages 7 and 17 “shall be provided an opportunity to receive the benefits of a free public education.”
Until the state defines specifically what qualifies as a free public education, he said, it is in danger of lawsuits from parents forced to pay fees in one town while children in neighboring communities get the same activities for free.
“Had my daughter gone to another school, she would have paid nothing,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert sent letters to Gov. Paul LePage and the newly appointed education commissioner, Stephen Bowen, who responded in a letter that there is currently no state law that prohibits schools from charging fees for school activities.
Maine Department of Education spokesman David Connerty-Marin confirmed that, saying that the state has no policies or rules on whether school districts can charge activity fees, or how much they can charge.
There is, however, a state law that prohibits schools from charging for textbooks and other classroom materials.
However, as school budgets get tighter, many Maine school boards are beginning to question what counts as a “free public education,” and what is extra.
Cape Elizabeth charged high school students $150 to participate in sports this year, up from $125 the year before. Middle schoolers paid $45 per sport plus a one-time $25 administration fee for athletic programs, down from a $75 per sport and uniform fee plus a one-time $40 administration fee the previous year.
Falmouth has a tiered system, where high school students participating in more expensive sports, such as hockey or football, pay $175 per season, while those participating in sports such as cross-country, pay $100. Participating in co-curricular activities costs $25 for the year. Middle school students pay $100 per sport, except cross-country and track, which cost $50. Participation in co-curricular activities costs $20 per year.
School Administrative District 51 (Cumberland and North Yarmouth) charges a $75 fee for participation in each sport, with the exception of those sports, such as football and skiing, where booster clubs already collect participation fees.
In Scarborough, the schools assess fees of $100 per sport and $50 per activity for high school students, and $50 per sport and $25 per activity for middle schoolers. The district also will begin charging intermediate school students (grades 3-5) $25 per activity starting next year.
“Not even close,” Scarborough School Board Finance Committee Chairman Robert Mitchell said when asked if the fees cover the costs of running the sports and activities.
Mitchell said the fees bring in about $150,000 per year, while the middle and high school activities alone cost approximately $760,000.
In Falmouth, the schools collect approximately $167,000 in activity fees, while the costs of middle and high school athletics is more than $675,000.
“People think sports and co-curriculars are all part of an education,” Mitchell said, “but we have to balance that with the costs of teachers and classrooms. You can’t have everything.”
Mitchell said with the cuts to school funding at the state level, districts must be creative to continue offering traditional programs.
“We have to manage the whole picture,” he said. “We just don’t get a lot of state subsidy.”
The South Portland School Board recently declined to enact a fee policy and RSU 5 (Freeport, Pownal and Durham) considered creating a fee structure last year, but decided against it.
“The cost was too significant for families in the RSU 5 area,” Superintendent Shannon Welsh said. “The (School) Board deliberated last year, but decided against it.”
Welsh said the costs of collecting the fees seemed to be more than the benefit.
Yarmouth also recently decided not to enact a fee system.
Yarmouth Superintendent Judy Paolucci said the School board has investigated the “pay-to-play” concept, but decided since parents already contribute so much to the sports program through booster support, the fees may have a negative impact.
“(Charging fees) may not be as advantageous as one may think,” she said. “We thought the booster support may lessen if there was a fee imposed.”
In Falmouth, the town’s Community Services Department takes care of fee collections for the schools.
Scarborough has added a new part-time $15,000 per-year administrative position to its budget for next year to manage the district’s activity fee system.
In Falmouth, Scarborough and SAD 51, students who receive free or reduced lunch through the schools are automatically exempt from paying the fees. Other parents can claim a financial hardship to have the fees waived.
Gilbert sees that as a serious loophole.
“You’re assessing a fee to a 13-year-old (high school) freshman. She doesn’t have any money,” he said. “She could apply for a waiver. Every kid can just apply based on the fact that they don’t have a job.”
Gilbert said there is no way his daughter, who is a freshman this year, could afford the $300 in fees to cover the three sports she played.
The Maine Civil Liberties Union is watching the situation.
“This is not something we’re currently working on,” MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows said, “but we encourage schools to provide services to students in an equitable way.”