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School-fee fight is brewing

In trying to gauge the direction of education reform, one school district has zeroed in on extracurricular activities — and is about to make waves statewide.

What if it were to follow recommendations from a governor-appointed business coalition, and cut off tax dollars for extra-curricular programs?

The state's largest school district reports it subsidizes those programs, from football to debate, by some $1.25 million a year. And it would have to quadruple student participation fees to make activities pay for themselves.

Such a fee hike is about to be explored.

The school board started this past week talking about whether to quadruple fees, including a three- or four-year phase-in, beginning next fall.

The prospect makes education insiders either gasp — or chuckle — in disbelief.

Some say increasing a basketball fee to $200 a year would price low- and middle-income kids out of the program.

But others say let Jordan go ahead and do it. After all, what better way to send a message to Capitol Hill than sending a mob of furious parents to their doorstep?

"When the mothers of the Bountiful girls' drill team find out the Republicans in the state Legislature want to do away with high school activities, we might end up with more Democrats in the state Legislature," said Lynn Davidson, member of the Utah High School Activities Association board of trustees and the Granite Board of Education.

School districts have been angry with lawmakers since they passed, and Gov. Mike Leavitt signed, a bill that moves schools toward core academics, such as English math and science, and requires kids to show

they know specific things in those areas in order to graduate.

The bill was recommended by Leavitt's Employer's Education Coalition, a group of local businesses who complained Utah high school graduates can't perform basic math or writing tasks. The coalition's basic message: spend more money on academics and let "nice-to-have" courses or activities that don't support the mission of the core curriculum cover their own costs.

Many school leaders, however, believe electives and athletics are part of a well-rounded education. Some even say those "fluff" classes are life savers for kids on the edge of dropping out.

The state school board is attempting to balance such views with the new law. It is proposing new graduation requirements, which in part mandate a C or better in most classes. It would allow kids some electives, but cap them at six units.

The plan could force schools to place extracurricular activities, including band, and orchestra, outside the school day — an idea supported by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Steve Laing, a former coach.

Excell, however, says that only makes coaching less attractive for teachers, who would have to put in even more time in what for most is a peanuts-paying, labor of love.

But it could free up money for core academics, as legislators want, because teachers wouldn't devote any class periods to extracurricular activities.

Salaries make up the bulk of district spending on activities, according to numbers run for Riverton High School. Even with gate receipts and student fees, the school spends nearly $160,000 to subsidize activities, district business administrator Burke Jolley said.

Other school districts calculate the costs differently.

"Things outside the curriculum don't cost that much money," Davidson said. "In many cases, athletics are a profit center for school districts."

The UHSAA studied the issue in the late 1980s, and found Utah schools' spending and revenues on activities were a wash. Districts statewide, however, spent $3.2 million in taxpayer dollars, or about 0.3 percent of the state school budget, to support activities.

UHSAA executive director Evan Excell doesn't think proportions have changed much since.

That said, some, including UHSAA trustees who learned of the prospect Thursday, wonder why Jordan would even bring up such drastic fee increases that could price low- and middle-income families out of the picture.

Students meeting federal poverty guidelines can ask that their participation fees be waived. But kids just over the line already struggle to pony up, and probably won't be able to if fees quadruple.

Such an increase also would impact the school in terms of fee waiver subsidies. For instance, in football, a student's $65 football fee would turn into a $260 investment. Fee waivers are required by court order, which is unlikely to change, state director of school law and legislation Carol Lear said.

The prospect could send parents into orbit. Think about it, Excell said: A school's phone would ring off the hook and parents would show up in masses if a swimming program is threatened. But cancelling a chemistry class is met with silence.

"There is just such a passion about activities and what they do for kids' social skills, social awareness . . . their GPAs are higher, attendance rates are higher, dropout rates are lower, teenage pregnancy is lower, among kids who participate," Excell said. "Parents know this, and they will fight to the death to keep these programs."

Maybe that's just what Jordan is looking for.

Jordan School Board member Ralph Haws, who lobbied the Legislature for the Utah School Boards Association, hopes the board's discussion will get people talking, and hold the Employer's Education Coalition accountable for its proposal.

"I'm not saying I support (the coalition's stand). I'm saying, they can't have it both ways," he said. "I think it's possible there will be fee increases. To the extent, nobody knows. But if we do what the coalition report says and use no taxes, we would have to raise fees by four times. That becomes the framework for that discussion."

The board is expected to talk about the idea again April 15.