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home : insight & opinion : editorials May 26, 2016

9/12/2013 10:33:00 AM
Be careful using fee increases as a school solution

When it comes to staying afloat financially, saying local school districts are between a rock and a hard place is putting it lightly.

With the State of Illinois floundering in a chronic fiscal disaster entirely of its own making, and no serious efforts in at least a decade to make basic changes in the way schools are funded, and no serious discussion of larger-scale local solutions such as consolidation - and with local tax referenda going down in flames - districts like ours in Crawford County are forced to chip away at services and programs.

"Spreading the pain" is about the best our school administrators and boards can hope to achieve. Robinson Unit 2 board President Dennis Inboden put it bluntly, and sadly, Monday night: "People have been hurt, and we're not going to be the same district we were."

With all that said - realizing the problem ultimately resides in Springfield (and the legislators we send there) and acknowledging that, at least for the short term, any solutions will have to be local - school boards must be very careful when they choose fee increases as part of those solutions.

Raising the price of lunch, or parking, or game admission, or instituting participation fees where there were none before, may appear to be an easy way of helping stabilize the revenue situation. But such fees are more regressive than any tax, punishing the most those who can afford it least.

Many Crawford County families live on the economic margins - just look at the percentages of students eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, and other measures of local poverty. A fee increase that may be frustrating, but manageable, for a middle-class Robinson or Hutsonville family may put those activities and services out of reach for lower-income kids.

And when students aren't able to participate at all because it costs too much, raising fees is self-defeating. Not only does it mean less revenue coming in, when students can't participate, but it also may mean certain activities or programs that depend on a minimum number of participants may not be offered at all.

This is not to say the fee option should be taken off the table altogether. There may be ways to ease the pain for those on the margins. Hutsonville's early-bird discount on book rental is but one example.

The bottom line, of course, is that, on their own, local school districts cannot nickel-and-dime their way out of this Springfield-rooted problem. But the solutions our school boards and administrators do come up with should be sensitive to those for whom an extra $10 may not mean just one less trip to the movies, but rather a late utility payment, or a missed meal, or not filling the gas tank as full the next time they head for work.

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