BROOKSVILLE — As far as first-day dilemmas go, principal Joe Clifford had a doozy.
Despite numerous notices to parents, Central High School was short roughly $29,000 in mandatory fees and non-returned textbooks.
So Clifford did something that has some parents crying foul: He tried to collect.
During first period on the first day of the school year, when most students get their class schedules, those who had so-called notices of obligation — roughly 250 to 300 students — went to the auditorium.
Clifford and about eight staff members worked with the students to get the textbooks back and to collect the fees.
He said it's the same thing he did last year, noting that there were no complaints. He collected all but a few hundred of $18,000.
"Look, I'm trying my best to be a responsible steward of the taxpayers' money," Clifford said, calling it his fiduciary responsibility. "If that's wrong, guilty."
Students who paid their outstanding fees or returned their textbooks got their schedules and returned to class, he said. Some of those on free or reduced-price lunches who had minimal fees had them waived and returned to class.
Clifford also said the school came up with payment plans for students with sizable fees who had trouble paying. Those with missing textbooks had to promise they would return the books by a certain date.
All the students were back in class by 10 a.m., Clifford said. Monday largely being an orientation day, they didn't miss any core instructional time.
He said it worked.
On Monday, the school collected roughly $12,500 worth of books and another $3,310 in fees. The school still had a lot missing: roughly $12,600 in textbooks and another $4,000 in fees.
Some parents were angered by the collection method.
"They've used all kinds of expletives with me," Clifford said. "I understand they're angry. But I'll be honest with you — so am I. And so should every taxpayer."
He said no student will be denied attending classes.
The district's other four high schools face a similar predicament each year, with large amounts of uncollected fees and missing textbooks.
The situation generally is handled by sending out notices of obligation to parents multiple times a year and withholding extracurricular activities from students who don't pay them.
Springstead, Hernando and Weeki Wachee high schools do not try to collect funds in the same manner as Central. Each, including Central, restricts extracurricular activities.
The Nature Coast principal could not be reached for comment.
Springstead students with unmet obligations, for example, are not able to participate in prom and are not issued a parking tag.
The logic? Extracurricular activities are a privilege, not a right.
"If you're going to attend those events and spend money buying tickets, at least you could pay us back," said Springstead principal Susan Duval.
Weeki Wachee principal Troy LaBarbara agreed.
"If people can go ahead and spend $50 to go to prom, they probably should have paid their fees up front," he said.
Duval said the school was committed to working with students who struggle to pay, setting up payment plans if necessary and reducing textbook costs for those on free and reduced-price lunches.
She said the school is good about keeping records of what students owe and sending notices to parents.
"I understand the frustration of having obligations and not following through on a payment," Duval said. "It's difficult. It's difficult all the way around.
While LaBarbara said he likes Weeki Wachee's current collection process, he defended Clifford.
"I believe Mr. Clifford is a reasonable man," he said, noting that he used to work alongside him at Central.
At Central, in addition to not being able to attend some out-of-school events, students who haven't returned their textbooks will only get new books after everyone else has received them. Clifford, however, said he doesn't expect the school to run short of books.
School Board member John Sweeney said he didn't think Central's decision was particularly well thought out and that in the future there should be input from the district on how to collect such a large amount of money.
However, he said it seemed to have all worked out fine.
"No harm, no foul," Sweeney said.
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt defended his principal, although he noted he wouldn't necessarily have handled the situation the same way.
He called Clifford on Monday morning, shortly after students had returned to class, letting Clifford know that parents were concerned.
"I certainly think that he has a right to do what he thinks is necessary to collect the fees, so long as he doesn't create a hardship for the students as far as getting to class," Blavatt said.
"It was a wake-up call."
Danny Valentine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.