school bus stock

Instead of letting principals freely set student fees as they have in the past, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday preliminary approved a few, broad districtwide fees, as well as additional charges for students taking certain elective courses.

Former School Board member and now State Rep. Pat Smith expressed several concerns, including whether the new policy does enough to exempt families that can’t afford the new fees.

Gwynn Shamlin, general counsel for the school system, said that with the current school year well under way, the new policy won’t affect many students until the 2020-21 school year starts next August, leaving time to tinker with the policy.

The School Board voted 5-0 Thursday to forward the proposed policy to its Nov. 21 regular meeting. Board members Tramelle Howard, Dadrius Lanus and David Tatman were absent, and board member Connie Bernard left early.

Rep. Smith is the author of Act 240, the new law approved in June by the Legislature that prompted the student fee proposal.

The new law mandates that by Dec. 1 all Louisiana public school districts post all their student fees on their district websites, complete with information on the fees’ purpose, what they’ll be used for as well as “the amount or authorized range for each.” These fees need to be consistent across all district schools.

“If you charge a fee for one thing, every school should be charged the same amount for that one thing,” Smith said.

The new law also requires that student fee policies establish a hardship waiver so families with financial difficulties aren’t forced to pay. The law lists a variety of ways students' families can qualify for the waivers, including receiving food stamps.

Smith said the law grew out a mother who called her in 2016 saying she couldn’t enroll her child in a public school without paying $100, which she couldn’t afford because she’d just lost her job. Smith authored a series of resolutions that prompted the Louisiana Department of Education to conduct multiple surveys of public and private schools about the fees they charge to students.

These surveys found that about a dozen school districts and schools imposed fees totaling nearly $3 million in 2016. Fees were charged for school supplies, registration, locker, parking, ID badges, coursework and extracurricular activities. And charges range from $10 to $300 per student.

In September, the state agency released guidance to help school boards develop student fee policies that comply with Act 240. State officials are to report to the Legislature by Dec. 31 on how the implementation of the law is going.

The new law does not prohibit school fundraisers or set restrictions on their other sources of revenue.

East Baton Rouge’s proposal calls for three broad categories of mandatory fees: logistical, technical and enrichment. The total student tab would vary by type of school: $35 for elementary schools, $90 for middle schools and $145 for high schools.

In addition, students taking elective courses could be charged fees ranging from $10 to $70 depending on the course.

Shamlin, however, said schools don’t have to apply fees.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system set up a committee of 12 principals to help it come up with recommendations.

Associate Superintendent Ben Necaise said the variety of schools in Baton Rouge made it hard to settle on a one-size-fits-all set of fees. He said school officials plan to monitor it closely to see if they can set the fees appropriately.

As far as hardship waivers, Necaise said the committee has tried to make the process simple, with a one-page form for parents to fill out. He said there would also be a catch-all clause allowing schools to exempt kids for extenuating circumstances, for example, if their house burns down in a fire.

Kirk Green, who teaches social studies at Westdale Middle School and is a member of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said as a parent he pays more fees than he’d like.

“I happen to be a parent who is lucky enough to send my kid to Baton Rouge High, but my wallet doesn’t always feel so lucky,” Green said.

Green urged the district to automate the hardship waiver process.

“If we have a data saying these parents are in hardship, why make them fill out a waiver in the first place?” he asked.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.