desks school stock classroom

Advocate file photo of school desks.

Instead of letting principals freely set student fees as they have in the past, the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board on Thursday set a few, broad districtwide fees, but also specified that schools don’t have to charge any fees at all.

The new fee policy also sets additional charges for students taking certain elective courses. School officials are developing a master list of what fees will fall under which categories, a list they plan to post online in the coming weeks.

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.

“This policy is actually subject to revision at any time,” he said.

The School Board voted 7-0 Thursday in favor of the policy. Board members Tramelle Howard and Dadrius Lanus were absent.

Former School Board member and now state Rep. Pat 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 their student fees on their district websites, complete with information on what the fees will be used for as well as “the amount or authorized range for each” fee. These fees need to be consistent across all schools in a district.

The new law also requires that student fee policies establish a hardship waiver for families with financial difficulties. The law lists a variety of ways students' families can qualify for the waivers, including receiving food stamps.

Shamlin said he and Smith, who had several questions about the new policy but was not present at Thursday's meeting, have spoken and that Smith did not offer any subsequent objections.

Board member Dawn Collins, however, worried that schools that don’t charge fees now for certain things might feel compelled to do so. Shamlin said he’ll add language to make that clear.

“This is a maximum recommended fee and not a required fee,” he said.

Smith has said the law is the result of a phone call she received in 2016 from a mother who said 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 altogether totaling nearly $3 million in 2016. Fees were charged for school supplies, registration, lockers, parking, ID badges, coursework and extracurricular activities. And charges ranged 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.

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 plan is to have a one-page form that parents can fill out at the start of the school year on which they check off ways they might be exempt. He also said there would also be a catch-all clause allowing families to cite extenuating circumstances if they don't meet the other listed exemptions.

Board member Connie Bernard suggested simplifying the process by giving automatic exemptions to families the school system already knows qualify based on information in its student database.

Belinda Davis, a parent of three public schoolchildren and a board watcher, was not satisfied. She said she doesn’t think public schools should charge such fees at all, but if they are then they should go to great lengths to make sure families know they might be exempt.

She also worried that some families that have little money wouldn’t be exempt the way the policy is currently written.

“A single mother who earns $2,000 a month, she would not qualify for this hardship waiver,” Davis said.

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