The Newton School Committee voted unanimously Monday night to eliminate or reduce a slew of student activity fees, saying the steep cost of admission can sometimes prove the difference between a child trying something new and taking a pass.
“I would say this is a significant move,” said Committee Chair Claire Sokoloff. “There were significant changes made that will have an impact on families, and hopefully make participation in activities increase.”
After more than an hour of discussion, the committee voted to eliminate the high school student activity fee entirely, making activities such as newspaper, ping pong, and mock trial free to participate in, though sports and drama will still require fees. The committee also reduced the total amount of fees a family can be expected to pay from $1,800 to $1,200.
Committee members lowered the parking fee for Newton South students from $360 to $310, and reduced the grade four and five instrumental music fee and All City Music fee from $200 to $150. Students who pay the grade four and five instrumental music fee will no longer be required to pay the All City Fee also.
Monday night’s cuts went further than the original proposal introduced at a June 10 meeting, which did not include the reduction to the music fee, though it would have made a larger cut to the parking fee.
The changes to the fee structure, made possible by a budget surplus and by one-time health care savings, will go into effect in the coming school year. The committee will continue to discuss the possibility of more fee reductions for future school years.
“In isolation, nobody likes fees, nobody wants fees that are going to deter children from participating in activities,” said Sokoloff. “And yet every district has fees, we’ve had fees for a very long time. We need to be very careful, if we eliminate a recurring revenue source, that we know what the tradeoffs would be.”
Fees are expected to generate $2.4 million toward the district’s $178.8 million budget this fiscal year, according to school officials. The cuts to the fees will take $135,500 of recurring revenue out of the district’s budget in the next fiscal year.
Superintendent David Fleishman said he was pleased that the cuts the committee voted on struck a balance between reducing fees and protecting rich programming for students.
“We’re always trying to achieve that balance,” he said. “I think the committee has the same interest.”
The district expects to end this fiscal year with a budget surplus of $922,000, and it also realized $1 million due to one-time savings on projected health care costs. After putting money into its reserves for emergencies next year and the city’s rainy day fund, which helps reduce borrowing costs, the district would be left with $1.3 million.
Most of that $1.3 million will be spent on new technology, but some will go to offset the cost of the fee cuts. Sokoloff said the district also expects an increase in funding from the state, which could help offset some of the cost as well.
Several Newton residents braved the pouring rain to listen to the School Committee decide what fees to cut.
Kate Martenis, a 15-year-old freshman at Newton North High School, told the committee about her older brother, Ned, who has played the flute since fourth grade. When he first started, she said, he didn’t know if the flute was right for him – and the fee could have dissuaded her parents from taking the risk. She read a statement from her brother urging the committee to eliminate the music fee.
“Music may not be for all people, but all people should be able to enjoy it freely through the Newton school system,” she read.
Some committee members lobbied for deeper cuts to the fees.
Geoffrey Epstein argued that all fees on arts and student activities should be waived for a year, so the district can study whether student participation in activities, which has dropped in some areas as the fees have gone up, would rise again.
He voted for the final proposal, but said the cuts to fees for the arts did not go far enough.
“I’ll vote for it,” he said, “but I think it’s a sad day for the arts.”
Angela Pitter-Wright suggested dropping the cap on fees a family pays to $1,000 instead of $1,200, and Steven Siegel suggested cutting the music fee to $100.
Other members, however, said there was simply not enough data about the effects of the fees on student participation to warrant sweeping cuts, and cautioned that cutting recurring revenue because of a one-time surplus could become costly down the road.
“The worst thing that I think I could do is overreach at this point,” said committee vice-chair Matthew Hills. “I would define overreaching as making too many changes based on some very shaky assumptions which we have no way of knowing are true at this point.”
Sokoloff said that while the fees for the next school year will not be changing any further, the committee will continue to discuss the possibility of more reductions in future years.
“If there’s a consensus on anything, it’s a sentiment that we don’t have enough information … to make big, big changes, because there’s a lot of different ways that people are looking at how to make the biggest impact given fiscal responsibility,” she said during the meeting. “We are going to continue this conversation one way or the other.”
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.