LAND O'LAKES — Student fees for Pasco elementary schools seem nominal enough: $1 for art, $5 for general expenses and $6 for special projects.
But they can add up fast. And the charges only rise as children move into middle and high school. There's $8 for science, $9 for locker rental, $6 for writing and math labs. If students participate in band, Junior ROTC or sports, look for the amounts to keep on going up.
What parents may not hear at orientation, where the fees are collected: Paying them is not required.
"It is a voluntary fee," said Beth Brown, district executive director for secondary education, who spent a decade as a principal before taking that new post. "We've never withheld a class … because a parent can't pay the fees."
And with many families continuing to struggle with the down economy, the numbers of parents who balk at the cost has increased in some areas.
"We have seen a change in the number of families that can pay the fees," said Hope Schooler, principal of Gulf Trace Elementary in Holiday, where the percentage of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches has grown to 72 percent.
"Some will ask, 'Can I pay $2 every week for the next six weeks?' " Schooler said. "Some will say, 'Can I wait until next paycheck?' "
School leaders gladly accept whatever they can get, as the collected fees help pay for materials that schools otherwise might go without.
"Unfortunately, there are costs associated with classes that go beyond the funding that we get," Brown said.
Gulf High School, for instance, uses its art fees to pay for additional supplies that get used up during the course of the year. Its general fees go into an account to support extra textbooks and teacher resources.
The athletic fees bolster the sports budget, which principal Steve Knobl said usually is depleted before spring each year.
He deals with each family individually in determining how to deal with any inability to pay.
Sometimes, student-athletes will work in the concession stand during an event to cover the cost, he said. They also get volunteer service hours for their time.
About a dozen students went that route last year.
In other instances, the school's ABC fund will contribute the amount. Another option is support from one of the school's booster clubs or the parent-teacher organization.
"We've never told a kid they can't be involved in something because they can't pay for it," Knobl said. "If it's on their schedule, then we find a way."
Other parents often will help out, Schooler said.
"Some will say, 'Here's $20. Don't give me any change,' " she said.
School Board vice chairman Allen Altman said he had spoken to several school athletic directors and other leaders to ensure that students are taken care of if they cannot afford the charges. That was one of his key concerns before agreeing to reimpose the fees for 2011-12, unchanged from the previous year.
"Not to increase or change those, I think, was a good idea," Altman said.
Early in his tenure, he had numerous questions about the need for some fees, such as locker rental. He found that although the lockers are already paid for, it still costs money to maintain and repair them.
District officials said they spend about $15,000 annually on locker upkeep, but stressed that the money comes from the district capital budget and not from student fees. The locker fee money goes into a separate fund for school materials and supplies.
Ideally, Brown said, the district would not have to ask parents for any additional money. But some things simply cost money that tax revenue does not cover, she said.
And Florida, unlike California, allows such fees to be collected. California recently settled a lawsuit in which it agreed that public education must be free and fees for classroom and extracurricular activities are illegal.
Schooler said she did not take for granted the added support that families offer to the schools.
"Every penny helps. Believe me," she said. "We are grateful to all our families that do pay the fees."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.