BROOKSVILLE — Educators may soon struggle to fund everything from school field trips to awards banquets because of lagging activity fee collection across the Hernando County school system.
In its first year, Hernando County schools collected the required $15 activity fee from roughly 37 percent of students, raising doubts about the future viability of activities at some schools in a time of drastically diminished budgets.
Roughly 8,164 of the district's 21,910 students paid the fee, generating about $122,000, according to district officials.
"If we don't have the activity fees, I don't know how schools are going to sustain the club organizations," said superintendent Bryan Blavatt. "Those are not getting funded."
The School Board approved the fee after budget cuts in 2011 in an effort to defray the costs of supporting clubs, extracurricular activities and school functions. The money raised by the fee stays with the school where it was collected and is used for student activities.
District principals said it was a vitally important funding source.
"Without it, we don't do those programs," said Springstead High School principal Susan Duval.
The fee came at the same time as a new, separate athletic fee — something students had to pay or arrange to pay before participating in the sport. Unlike that fee, there's no penalty for failing to pay the $15 activity fee, and students are not denied participation in any school functions.
That's one of many factors district officials say is contributing to low compliance rates.
The others: Cash-strapped parents struggling in a tough economy, lack of awareness, lack of incentives and confusion over who has to pay the fee and what it covers.
Collection rates at district schools vary widely.
Hernando High School had the lowest compliance rate in the district, with just 3.1 percent — 41 students — paying the fee for a total of $615.
Chocachatti Elementary School had the highest compliance with nearly 90 percent of its 911 students paying the fee. The school raised $12,185, according to district records.
"Some were more aggressive, some were not," Blavatt said, noting that the district didn't get involved with enforcing collection efforts at individual schools.
Hernando High School has more than 50 percent of students on free and reduced-price lunch, and it struggled with coming up with incentives to get people to pay the fee, said principal Ken Pritz.
"It was really hard to figure out what we were going to connect to it to make people pay," he said. "We asked people to pay it, but we couldn't force people to pay it."
Pritz said there haven't yet been any cutbacks to activities, but in the future the school might be forced to curtail spending.
Next year, the school is going to try and make more of an effort to gather the fees, taking a page from Springstead High School, which raised just over $12,000 and had the highest compliance percentage among high schools.
Springstead offered students their choice of two of a range of incentives, including $5 off a prom ticket, $5 off a yearbook, $10 off parking pass and a dodgeball tournament, among others, said Duval.
"What we're trying to do is not just take the money from these kids, but give something in return," she said
At Chocachatti, principal Maria Rybka said they didn't need to offer incentives. Parents understood the school was collecting the money for a good reason, she said.
"I think that the parents can appreciate that the schools have needs that aren't met by the state," Rybka said.
Overall, high schools tended to have the lowest compliance rates with an average of 23 percent of the district's high school students paying the fee. Elementary schools had the highest rate at roughly 54 percent.
School Board member Matt Foreman takes issue with how the fee has been implemented.
"If your going to institute it, follow up on it. Simple as that," said Foreman. " If we're going to put something into place, we need to make sure we can implement it. It doesn't sound like we've effectively implemented that."
Foreman, the School Board's vice chairman, called the fees a "necessary evil."
"When times were good, we didn't have to do this," he said. "The finances of every government entity in Hernando County are not what they used to be."
Danny Valentine can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1432.