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WAIVER LAW IS COSTING STUDENTS THEIR ACTIVITIES

The Timpview High School band won't be going to Southern California this year to perform and attend music workshops.

The Provo School Board turned down the school's request because it would have to foot the bill for too many students. A 6-year-old law - only recently enforced - requires schools to cover activity fees for students who can't afford them. The district feared having to spend thousands of dollars on the trip.Like the Timpview band members, students throughout Utah County are in danger of losing school-sponsored extracurricular activities because of the amount of fees schools are forced to waive this year.

Third District Judge John Rokich ruled this summer that schools must make sure parents are aware of the waiver policy. A class action suit filed against five districts, including Provo, asked that the 1986 law be enforced.

That means parents could ask Timpview High School Principal Randy Merrill to cover a $2 fee to get into a dance or $400 to be a cheerleader. Members of the a capella choir have chosen to purchase $90 dresses and $150 suits. Students keep the apparel.

"The school can't buy clothes for kids," Merrill says.

But it is. And much more.

"It's totally out of control right now. We're waiving stuff that shouldn't be waived," he said.

In the past, the district granted waivers for basic educational programs. Merrill mailed personal letters to families he knew couldn't afford a $50 textbook fee. Administrators believed waivers for after-school and summer programs were optional. According to Rokich's ruling, that interpretation was wrong.

Last year, Timpview spent about $5,000 on fee waivers. That figure has quadrupled just three weeks into the current school year. Provo's four high schools and middle schools issued $72,740 in waivers during the 1991-92 school year. Administrators say that figure could double this year.

Alpine School District waived about $40,000 in fees last year. This year the district has already waived more than $180,000, and the amount could exceed $200,000 by the year's end.

"We're going to be hard pressed to handle the problem this year," Alpine Superintendent Steven Baugh said."We've either got to get some additional revenue or eliminate programs."

Nebo School District will spend $55,000 to $60,000 in its six high schools and junior highs because of the fee exemptions, said Larry Kimball, director of secondary education. Nebo handed out $12,000 in fee waivers last year.

"Those are really significant losses; it's the cost of two teachers," Kimball said.

Districts are expected to lobby for legislation modifying the law to minimize the financial impact on districts. Provo Superintendent Kay Laursen recently sent a letter to a local legislator recommending funding activities on a formula basis.

"What I'd like to have is free public education. To me that would be the ideal," Laursen said. "The Legislature wrote the law; it should provide money for all activities and fees." He acknowledges the Legislature would have to raise taxes to do that.

Some school officials, however, believe extracurricular activities should be funded on the local level, and the fees should be waived for those who cannot afford them. The state should pay for basic programs, such as textbooks and class supplies. Many districts depend on fees because they don't receive enough funding from the state.

"I think the Legislature's intent was to make public education available to all students, not to waive all fees from the extracurricular ones to drivers education," Kimball said.

But until the Legislature takes up the issue in January, schools have two choices: cut programs or raise fees. Neither is palatable.

"I'm unwilling at this point to choose. I don't like the choices. I want another option," Merrill said.

Alpine is making up the shortfall with reserve funds and by encouraging fund-raising efforts. In the past, Alpine has discouraged supporting programs with fund raising, but officials feel they no longer have a choice. Nebo will likely cover the deficit from its basic programs fund. Provo has not decided how to pay for the increase in waivers.

"We're going to have to come up with the money. We're so tight right now, it's almost impossible," Laursen said.

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Fees could pit `halves' against `have nots'

Timpview High School Principal Randy Merrill worries that athe fee waiver issue will drive a wedge between students who can afford to pay for activities and student who can't.

Issuing a high number of waivers could force schools to discontinue programs. Students who can't pay could effectively prevent those who can from praticipating.

Rather than drop programs, schools could raise fees. But some parents have already told Provo School District Superintendent kay laursen they aren't willing to cover other students' fee waivers.

merrill says it wrong that those factors might pit student against student, family against family.

Although fee waivers are kept confidential, word gets around. Students know which of their classmates have money and which don't Merrill fears the waiver issue could breed contention.

"I just want to try to limit the friction between the `haves' and the `have nots,'" he said.

Merrill said said he's sensitive to the needs of financially troubled students. He understands, too, that people don't want to pay higher fees. he just doesn't know what to do about it.

"It's a dilemma," merrill said. "Whatever I do is wrong."