Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Education

Just 40% of students pay $15 activity fee at Hernando schools

Hernando High School principal Leechele Booker had hoped to hold more events to recognize students for their achievements and to teach positive behavior.

Pine Grove Elementary principal Thomas Earl Deen ran out of money designated for student activities and had to pull cash from other funds.

At West Hernando Middle, teachers dipped into their own pockets to pay for pizza parties and provide other incentives, said principal Carmine Rufa.

The culprit: the lack of student activity fee revenue during the past year.

In the second year since the $15-per-student fee was implemented, Hernando schools collected money from about 40 percent of students, diminishing schools' ability to provide extra activities in a time of drastically reduced budgets.

Just 8,648 of the district's 21,692 students paid the fee, generating about $130,000, according to an analysis of activity fee collection provided by the district's financial department. Schools lost more than $195,000 in revenue because of the unpaid fees.

That's up slightly from the 2011-12 collection rate of roughly 37 percent, which generated about $122,000.

"You know, overall, that has been a tremendous disappointment to me," outgoing superintendent Bryan Blavatt said of the collection rates.

The School Board approved the fee — required of every student — after budget cuts in 2011 in an effort to assist with the cost of supporting clubs, extracurricular activities and school functions. The fee money stays with the school where it is collected.

Over the past two years, Hernando's schools have seen consecutive 10 percent budget cuts, and many in the district say the fees are crucial to being able to provide activities, such as field trips, motivational speakers and rewards for students who make the honor roll.

Blavatt said some schools have come to him asking for money.

"My answer to them is, 'You had activity fees; where are they?' " he said.

Some schools are much more aggressive at trying to collect the fees than others, with collection rates varying widely from school to school, Blavatt said.

Chocachatti Elementary, which has one of the district's most affluent populations, collected fees from about 91 percent of its students, representing $11,760. Eastside Elementary, with the district's highest percentage of children qualifying for free or reduced-price meals, collected fees from just 3.7 percent of its students — $285.

Though the fees are required, there is no penalty for not paying.

"When the dust all settles, we can't enforce it," said Deen, principal of Pine Grove Elementary.

Pine Grove, which collected $3,840, could have done more this past school year had its collection percentage been higher, he said, offering more incentives for student achievement, more assemblies and more hands-on activities to enhance classroom learning.

"That would be great," Deen said.

He said some parents have difficulty paying the fee.

"A lot of them tell us that they just don't have the money," he said. "They're trying to decide whether to pay the activity fee or have another couple of meals.

"That's a legitimate concern for a lot of them."

Deen said collection has to go up next year.

"I went in the hole last year, budgetwise," he said. "We're running on a shoestring budget now. Everything you have to take from one place, then that hurts the other."

Rufa, West Hernando's principal, said he is going to try to increase the school's collection rate by 10 percentage points during the 2013-14 year. This year, the school received funds from about 21 percent of its students, for a total of $2,630.

Rufa said the school plans to offer an incentive for paying the fee during the school's open campus just before school starts. He also intends to set up a booth that explains what the money goes toward.

If the school had collected more activity fees this year, out-of-pocket expenses for teachers would have gone down.

"That's the goal," Rufa said.

Springstead High principal Susan Duval has had some of the greatest success collecting the fees. The school has raised the most of any of the high schools — by more than $12,000.

Her trick? Incentives.

Students can get discounts on everything from prom tickets to parking permits. They also are eligible to participate in dodgeball tournaments held for people who have paid their activity fees.

The tournaments actually draw a huge crowd, Duval said, with students dressing in coordinated outfits and bringing their "A" games.

"I'd get clobbered out there," she said. "(It) brings out the real pros."

Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. On Twitter: @HernandoTimes.

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