School Fees
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90.3 WBHM | Birmingham -- Tatnisha McTerry and her kids have settled into the morning routine. (fade up nat sound of scrubbing shoes) 10-year-old Detrick and 11-year-old Justin scrub their Michael Jordan tennis shoes till they shine.

"It's 6:55 boys! Six-55! You’ll be rushing to catch the bus in a minute."

McTerry is playing catch-up financially. Registering four kids for public school has made a real dent in the bank account of this single mom, who works part-time. As she leans on a folding table - one of only two pieces of furniture in her living room - she does the math.

"Oh..... three or four hundred dollars! We had to do fees... and I didn't get everything either. I got the stuff that they needed. All the optional things, I told them they'd get it as time go."

What they got was school supplies, a locker, an assignment book and t-shirts that they’re required to wear on all field trips. McTerry also paid a “mailing” fee that covers any papers the school has to mail to her home. The kids will have to wait for ID tags, yearbooks and an activity card that gets them into football games and other school events.

And it's not just lower-income parents like Tatnisha McTerry who are feeling the crunch. Across town - seated in her large living room overlooking a wooded backyard, Deb Fernow also feels the pain. She has a daughter who's a sophomore at Oak Mountain High School.

"Each class that's not what's considered basic education - she's in French class, she's in driver's ed, she's in band, she's in some business classes - there's a fee for every one of those."

Add the locker fee and the "voluntary donation" of $100 that the school asks from every child ... plus the 650 dollars for the marching band – and Fernow is paying just under one-thousand dollars.

Thompson High SchoolFees like this are common in Alabama, where many school systems are facing budget cutbacks. Principal Ron Griggs at Thompson High School in Alabaster says he’s already taken the lightbulbs out of the soda machines in the hallway to save money on electricity. He says if he doesn’t get money from parents – education will suffer.

"Example is our science classes. We can teach about dissecting a pig or other things by just using pictures and materials off a piece of paper. But you and I know that students are educated much better when they can put something in their hands and they can visualize it, look at it, handle it. And those supplies, or that money that we generate allows us to give them that hands-on experience."

Alabama's not alone. Across the country in financially-strapped states, schools are increasingly asking parents to pay for supplies that used to be provided by the schools - even toilet paper for the bathrooms, according to Katie Campbell, president of the Alabama PTA.

"Parents feel like they pay their taxes, so they don't want to be taxed in addition to what they've paid."

But some parents – especially in wealthier districts – say they can’t opt-out of the optional fees even if they wanted to because there’s so much peer pressure. Connie Kohler felt it when she went to register her son for 5th grade recently at Edgewood Elementary School.

"It's all this social approval that is just tied into school life that - yeah - it makes it hard to say 'no' to that money. I actually rehearsed ... I shouldn’t say this – you know a little speech, anticipating this. I’ve been giving money to this school for the past ten years and I don’t think you should be asking me!“

By law, schools can’t refuse to let kids participate if their parents don’t pay the fees… but school administrators say it’s a double-edged sword … if enough parents choose not to pay, schools will be forced to cut programs like band, theater, and sports teams.

~Tanya Ott, 09/04/2003