Published in the July 7, 2016 edition.
By MARK SARDELLA
WAKEFIELD —The issue of activity fees at Wakefield Memorial High School came to a head last week during a School Committee discussion of a proposed increase in certain user fees for the coming school year. The committee ultimately voted in favor of the increases, but the vote was split 4-3.
Several members who voted for the increases said that they were doing so reluctantly, and the at times contentious discussion appeared to stiffen the School Committee’s resolve to phase out user fees altogether and fund most extracurricular activities within the school budget.
The committee was asked to vote for a set of increases in user fees for certain activities as recommended by the “Activity Fee User Group,” which included School Superintendent Dr. Kim Smith, School Committee members Christopher Callanan and Rob Tiro, School Business Manager Michael Pfifferling, High School Principal Richard Metropolis, Director of Music Education Thomas Bankert and Director of Athletics, Health and Wellness Brendan Kent.
The increases were set out in a memorandum from Pfifferling dated June 28. The working group recommended adding Winter Color guard and Winter Percussion to the Athletics and Marching Band category of user fees and to increase the activity fee in that category from $260 to $275. The recommendation also called for increasing the family cap from $780 to $825.
Also recommended was adding a family cap of $300 to the Performing Arts category of fees. The Working Group also recommended increasing the registration fee and registration fee cap at Wakefield Academy by $10.
But the bone of contention was the increase in the Athletics and Marching Band activity fees.
School Committee member Anne Danehy was vocal and adamant in her opposition to the fee hikes. She asked to hear the justification for the increases.
Athletic Director Brendan Kent explained that since FY 2015 the rates that the school has to pay for bus transportation had risen from $55 to $70 (with a four hour minimum). He said that means that it costs $280 “every time our kids get on a bus.” He said that those transportation costs have squeezed other areas of the budget, such as for athletic equipment and uniforms. He said that a number of coaches have come to him saying that they needed new equipment.
Danehy said that she was sympathetic but wondered why this need was never brought up during the school budget process.
She noted that the activity/user fees “were instituted when we were in dire financial straits. We’re in a different position now. We’re not in dire financial straits.”
Danehy argued that the school system should be reducing fees with a goal of eliminating them altogether and funding all student activities through the school budget. She expressed surprise at learning that there even was an Activity Fee Working Group that had been looking at the issue of fees.
“Public education is supposed to be free,” Danehy said, “but we’re charging an awful lot on a lot of different levels.” She acknowledged that there was assistance available to families that can’t afford the fees but questioned how many families were aware of the available assistance. Other families, she said, might not be willing to admit they have a need.
School Committee Chairman Greg Liakos pointed out that two years ago the School Department eliminated fees for all-day kindergarten.
“That was a huge step forward in making education affordable to a larger segment of the population,” Liakos said. “Most of us feel that user fees are an unwelcome but necessary evil. We just haven’t figured out a way to eliminate them.”
Asked what the implications would be on athletics of not increasing the fees, Kent said that it wouldn’t be possible to support teams with the necessary equipment. He reiterated that bus transportation was a major issue.
“We can’t expect kids to walk to Burlington for a JV game,” he said.
School Committee member Rob Tiro said that the first thing that the Activity fee working group did was to look at ways to bring in more money. He said that he would support the proposed fee increases “until we can get to the point where we can eliminate user fees.”
School Committee member Kate Morgan said that she agreed with Danehy and proposed including the issue of user fees in next year’s budget discussions. She said that she would not be voting to increase the fees.
School Committee member Thomas Markham said that the issue came down to the question of what the taxpayers should be obligated to fund. He said that it was the responsibility of the School Committee and not the administration to take on user fees as a policy and a political issue. Eliminating user fees would mean asking Town Meeting for more money, he said.
“We’re going to have to grow the budget by $380,000 to $400,000 if we’re going to eliminate fees and grow programs,” he said. “This is not going to be easily achieved.”
In the meantime, Markham said that he was prepared to reluctantly support the proposed fee increases rather than reduce programs.
Danehy was not swayed.
“I don’t see how increases are going to get us to the elimination of fees,” she said. “It seems backward to me.”
She said that she was angry that the possibility of an increase never came up at budget time.
“I’m here to support students,” she said. “Now I’m between a rock and a hard place.” She suggested looking within the current budget to see if there was something that could be done to help support athletics without creating an additional burden on families.
School Committee member Christopher Callanan said that the Activity Fee Working Group had nixed the idea of an even larger fee increase.
“We need to accept a modest increase and work toward eliminating fees if we can do that,” he said. In the meantime, he added, the School Committee needed to make a decision so families would know where they stand in the fall.
Markham said that he hoped that that the School Committee would remain united in its goal of eliminating user fees. He said that he would love to see a time when there were sufficient resources to eliminate user fees and cover cost increases within the budget.
Danehy stressed that her “no” vote on the fee increases did not mean that she did not support Kent and the students. She said that she hoped a “no” vote would result in working to find the needed funding elsewhere.
“I cannot support increasing fees,” Danehy reiterated, “when our goal is their elimination.”
Ultimately, Liakos, Tiro, Callanan and Markham voted in favor of the proposed fee increase. Dannehy, Morgan and Ronald Masse were opposed.