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Ursula Clark-Holmes, who has three children attending public schools in Baton Rouge, is beset by so many student fees that she even offered to offset the charges by volunteering at the schools.

"I can't afford these school fees," said Clark-Holmes, who husband died recently. "I literally can't."

She is not alone.

In a state where two out of three public school students live in low-income homes, fees for homeroom, ID's, lockers, PE uniforms, parking and technology have sparked controversy for more than two years.

Parents and others contend that what schools routinely charge parents, including up to $300 for some courses, has reached a breaking point.

"If you don't pay your fees she can't do this, she can't do this," Clark-Holmes said of children being denied school activities.

"How are you going to penalize a child for what the parents cannot pay?" she asked.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said school districts need to make changes before state lawmakers order them.

"What we are trying to do is encourage superintendents to look at the issues, to look at what is going on in their school systems, to develop policies and to be transparent about fees and stuff prior to anything being mandated by the Legislature," said Faulk, former superintendent for the Central school system.

Under current rules, principals, superintendents and school boards enjoy near unchecked authority when it comes to imposing fees on students.

While 27 states regulate fees, state laws in Louisiana barely touch the topic.

Roughly a dozen school districts and schools imposed student fees totaling nearly $3 million for the financial year that ended June 30, 2016, according to the latest state tally.

That includes the Ascension Parish School District, $932,920; Lafayette, $815,000; and Zachary, between $320,000 and $350,000.

In addition, two out of three districts statewide failed to spell out how fees are collected, and few addressed how low-income students — a key issue — can get assistance.

State officials found that fees — mostly in middle and high schools — range from $10 to $95 per fee per student.

One third of the state's 69 school districts charged for high school courses that can allow students to earn college credit — dual enrollment — even though annual state aid is supposed to cover those costs.

Some schools charge students up to $300 per course.

"Children's access to educational opportunity should never be limited by their family income, particularly in public and publicly-funded schools," Erin Bendily, assistant state superintendent of education said in an email.

"With over two-thirds of Louisiana's students coming from economically disadvantaged households, it is important that schools examine fees and communicate clear processes for addressing any financial hardships," Bendily said.

The fees have an impact on who takes the classes.

While black students make up 44 percent of the high school population, they only account for 22 percent of dual enrollments, according to state figures.

Students from low-income families make up two-thirds of high schools but only 37 percent of dual enrollment classes.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, sponsored resolutions on student fees in 2016, 2017 and 2018 in a bid to prod changes.

Smith, a veteran member of the House Education Committee, said schools need to spell out how students can get waivers when their families cannot afford the fees.

"Some schools pay all the fees for dual enrollment," she said. "Some say 'We have to charge.' We are trying to wrap our arms around that as well."

Smith's latest resolution, which won approval earlier this year, set up a task of parents, state and local education officials and others.

The panel has met twice recently and officials plan to make recommendations to the Legislature by Jan. 31, 2019.

Tommy Byler, principal of North Vermilion High School in Maurice and a member of the task force, said ensuring students from low-income families have equal access is the key topic.

"That is the underlying issue of everything," said Byler, who was 2018 state Principal of the Year and whose school website includes fee schedules.

"Most principals operate with common sense," he added. "We are not going to deny anything for a student. But there is nothing (policy) in place."

Faulk said lots of fees stem from extracurricular activities that students choose.

But he also said districts need to spell out fees, how the revenue is used and to include those policies on school websites.

"We do have some that have a policy," Faulk said of districts. "You have others working on a policy. We have a better sense of direction since we talked to Pat Smith and since the task force came up."

Under pressure, the Louisiana School Boards Association has come up with its own recommendations, in part to head off any push to enact a state law on student fees.

"To avoid such action, the LSBA urges each elected school board to ensure that it has adopted a basic, common sense and fair student fee policy and promulgate that policy to parents through your website and your student manual," according to the group.

The LSBA is recommending that fees be uniform across the district; should not be assessed for mandatory school work; be defined and separated from charges like those for club t-shirts and include a process for the waiver of fees for economic hardship.

The group also said disputes over fees should not affect student grade progression, access to report cards or graduation.

Officials in five school districts told the state they had withheld educational records because of the failure of students to pay fees and debts.

Neva Butkus, education policy analyst for the Louisiana Budget Project, said Louisiana has the highest rate of child poverty in the U.S.

A $50 fee might not sound like much, Butkus said, but it represents a day's wages for a parent holding a minimum wage job.

She said the last thing public schools should be doing is erecting financial barriers for students.

"Public education is there to level the playing field," Butkus said.  

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.