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Fee fight brewing in Provo

Parents want school chiefs to eliminate 'rich,' 'poor' divide

PROVO — Parents are pressuring Provo School District chiefs to design a policy governing school fees that will eliminate the divide between "rich" schools and "poor" schools.

Proposals for a policy will be discussed by the city's Board of Education at a meeting today.

Boundary changes that went into effect at the beginning of the school year have some parents concerned that a perceived rich-poor divide, while appearing to be shrinking, may actually prove to have remained the same or widened once final data is collected at the end of October.

And as the board began to debate proposed policies last year, worries surfaced that the two high schools — Provo and Timpview — and two middle schools — Centennial and Dixon — could be pitted against each other in a competition for resources.

The policy being developed will attempt to "equalize" school budgets by compensating schools with higher percentages of students who receive fee waivers. Waivers are given to students who qualify under income guidelines.

State administrative law requires districts to balance inequities among schools caused by fee waivers, said Carol Lear, an attorney for the Utah State Office of Education.

Despite the state law, the current fee waiver policy in Provo District isn't clear, said Sandy Packard, Provo District's school board vice president.

If a $10 workbook is needed for biology class, administrators at some schools will collect enough money to purchase it for students who cannot afford it.

However, if half of a school's students receive fee waivers, such purchases will be expensive. Packard wonders whether some schools forgo certain programs and materials because of lack of funds.

"Exactly how that money tracks itself out is not very clear, still," Packard said.

Packard has rejected two policies that have been drafted so far. She wants a policy to read that the compensation comes from the district's coffers, and the compensation is automatic after the numbers of fee waivers are determined.

"One of my issues was the policy they came up with would require the principals of the poorer schools (to) apply to the district to get the fee-waiver funds," she said. "It's not really popular with the school that has to give up the money. A principal may be motivated not to request it. My feeling is the students are entitled to it."

Parent Kristine Manwaring is concerned the results of a bad policy could create a "two tiered" school system, evidence of which she has already noticed in the physical condition of buildings and test scores — both of which are better at schools in wealthier parts of the city.

"I'm hoping they make it an accounting issue rather than a political issue," she said.

Kerry Smith, the district's business administrator, said teachers should not complain about students who receive fee waivers.

The current policy requires principals of schools affected by fee waivers to ask the superintendent for additional money, Smith said.

The boundary realignment sought to address socio-economic gaps throughout the district, Smith said.

Last year, about 45 percent of Provo's students were from low-income families and received free or reduced lunch and fee waivers.

The district is still compiling numbers for the newly begun school year, but as of Sept. 8, about 40 percent of students were in such programs.

The decrease may have to do with new state requirements for proving income to qualify for such programs. The number also may rise when all students who qualify for such programs have been processed, Smith said.

Such high numbers of students who need fee waivers end up affecting the whole district, not just the schools that need the compensation, said Principal Rosanna Ungerman of Dixon Middle School, which has a higher number of students receiving fee waivers than its sister school, Centennial Middle School.

"When you put money into one bank account, it's got to come out of another bank account. It can't come out of the air," she said. "I think, fundamentally, the issue needs to be resolved at the legislative level" with the state providing school districts more money to abide by the law.