CINCINNATI – Nancy Stewart had no illusions that sending her son, Julian, to a public school meant a free education. Good thing, too.
Stewart's third-grader at North Avondale Montessori is a Renaissance boy, joining the football team, the choir and the Legos club. That means fees, fees, fees. Getting Julian through third grade will cost $3,395, including $1,400 in after-school care at the North Avondale Recreation Center, she tallied.
The Stewart family is not alone. Just for clothes, shoes, supplies and electronics, parents will spend an average of $669.28 this school year, up 5 percent from last year, according to the National Retail Federation.
But that's just the beginning, especially for students who are active in sports and other extracurriculars. Add in field trips, sports and extracurricular fees and class trips to Washington or overseas, and costs can soar another $2,500 in some schools, bringing the total cost of going back to school, not counting tuition, to more than $3,000.
"Every field trip has to be paid for, all the classroom supplies – not only for your child but for the whole class to use," Stewart said. "We do lots of supply buying, not even mentioning food or snacks for special occasions.
"I always tell new parents that you don't just bring your child to school. You bring your time, your talents, and your treasure," she said.
At Little Miami High School in Morrow, students have to pay $350 per varsity sport. If they want to join the band, it costs $250 and another $50 if they need to rent their instrument.
"We're just trying to cover our expenses," Little Miami Superintendent Greg Power said. "There is no profit, recognizing we have a diverse student body ranging from students who come from homes with access to material things to those who aren't doing well economically."
Little Miami administrators have had little choice but to pass hefty user fees along to families since voters rejected eight straight tax levies before finally passing an emergency levy by 74 votes in 2011. The cash crunch forced the district into a fiscal emergency, from which it emerged in May 2013.
"We try to minimize what we ask parents to add. We know they pay their taxes. But there are some things that we can't provide and do try to recover the costs," Power said.
36 pencils and 10 glue sticks
The norm in many school districts is for students and parents to buy school supplies that will be used by the class, including more glue sticks than you can shake a ruler at.
"My daughter needs 36 pencils and 10 glue sticks for first grade... really?" asked Lynda Mitchell, of Milan, Ind., in a post on WCPO's Facebook page.
"The teacher/school expects you to send in 12 'large' size glue sticks when they're $1.99 each," Lori Lykins wrote.
Parents who send their children to Catholic schools also face a long list of expenses above tuition. Dan Andriacco, Archdiocese of Cincinnati spokesman, said each school sets its own policy on fees with the understanding that they are revenue neutral.
"Those decisions are largely made at the school and parish level. Our policy says fees can't be a back door way to raise tuition," he said.
Purcell Marian High School's student body has shrunk to about 400 and has shifted over the decades from mostly Catholic and middle class to one with many non-Catholics from low-income families.
The school has a dress code but no uniform except for logo shirts, which cost $18 each. That compares to all-girl schools like Mother of Mercy High School in Westwood and Saint Ursula Academy in Walnut Hills, whose uniform skirts cost more than $50 each.
In an effort to keep tuition within reach for as many families as possible, Purcell Marian charges for athletics -- $200 per sport with a family cap of $500. The school eliminated in-house hot lunches, opting instead to schedule carryouts at Skyline, Larosa's and other local restaurants, all of whom offer meals at a discount under $4, according to Tammy Reasoner, Purcell Marian spokesperson.
Vending machines offer sandwiches for $1.75 and entrees for about $3, too.
"Even for a middle class family today, the cost of private school is expensive. Our goal is to provide a Catholic education to anyone who wants it," Reasoner said. "We are very fortunate to have an alumni base of over 17,000, and they're very generous, so that helps defray costs."
Instead of spring break, Purcell Marian holds an inter-session activity for a week, including free in-school classes, trips out of state and, in the case of Latin students, to Rome. For most of the students with their eyes on that trip, that means one or more years of fundraising.
"The goal is to never exclude anyone who can't afford it," Reasoner said. "If they want to go, they have to put in the time to raise funds."
Boosters help out
Some schools overcome modest public funding through active booster clubs. Beechwood Independent Schools in Fort Mitchell, which serves more than 1,200 K-12 students, manages to offer
sports for free thanks to its athletic boosters club, which aggressively raises money with a golf outing and numerous other efforts.
Still, school fees there start at $65 for elementary students and are higher depending on activities at the junior high school and high school level, Superintendent Steve Hutton said.
Not every district has to squeeze extra money out of students' families. Wyoming City Schools has converted the generosity of its taxpayers into a public education that is largely free of extra costs: no fees for sports, band, science labs or local field trips.
The senior trip to Washington is $595, and the eighth grade trip to Chicago is $400, "but we always try to work with
families so that all children can go on these trips," said Susanna Max, a spokeswoman.
Sue Lang, Wyoming's superintendent, said her district has managed to provide many free services without putting an operating levy on the ballot in more than a decade.
"It's about the community and that they place education No. 1. We have a PTA that raises literally hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and pays for extracurriculars, field trips, and supports the Chicago and Washington trips," she said. "The other one is our Wyoming Foundation that supports what I call the other pieces that make education excellent."
Lang has worked in districts with less public and parental support, and she is grateful for Wyoming's commitment to the schools.
"It's a value add to have schools in this community that people really respect and revere," she said.
Trisha Bishop Harris pointed out on WCPO's Facebook page another low-cost option the her family chose.
"We homeschool all three of our children. I stock up on the cheap things, such as folders, pencils, rulers, etc., but don't need much. It's only one of the many things I love about homeschooling," she wrote.
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