By Terry Dean
Parents with kids attending Oak Park and River Forest High School will be required to pay a $340 per-student fee for books and materials starting in the upcoming school year if a proposal submitted last month to the school board is approved. The fee would replace the wide-ranging out-of-pocket textbook costs which most parents now pay.
There is pushback, though, from at least one school board member on the proposal. Sharon Patchak-Layman has questioned if the fee would pass legal muster. She also believes the fee shifts costs for textbooks for OPRF families unable to pay for books from a now discontinued state textbook subsidy program onto other local families. Patchak-Layman says the school district should carry those costs from its general fund.
Currently, families spend varying amounts for books and materials for their kids depending on specific courses being taken. The fee proposal was set for a vote at the board's Feb. 24 regular meeting but was pulled from the agenda hours before the meeting's start.
It was also discussed by the board's finance committee on Feb. 15, where Patchak-Layman raised questions about moving to a fee model and whether the high school could legally do that. Cheryl Witham, OPRF's chief financial officer, told Wednesday Journal this week that the school's attorney was looking into the legal question but has yet to find anything preventing the school from imposing a fee.
Witham expects to bring the proposal back, and with questions answered, to the finance committee March 15. It would then be put on the agenda for a vote at the school board's March 24 regular meeting. But if it's not approved then, Witham said the school won't be able to implement the fee for the 2011-2012 school year.
Witham said the school was looking for a more efficient and cost-effective model for distributing instructional materials. Under the current model, some students spend upwards of $500 for books while other students spend much less than that. On average, OPRF families pay about $350 for books and materials, according to Witham.
Another factor, she said, for going to a fee model was the elimination of a state-funded textbook loan program that provided money to school districts. OPRF typically received around $200,000 from the program about every other year. According to information on the Illinois State Board of Election's website, that breaks down to $40 per pupil for school districts (http://webprod.isbe.net/TextbookLoanProgram/faq1.aspx).
The state program was cut last year. With that subsidy gone, Witham said OPRF parents would end up paying about $100 more for books and materials beginning next school year. She maintained that the fee's main goal is to reduce the financial burden already placed on parents.
"Our goal has always been to make this much more efficient and to reduce costs for everyone. And it makes sense for families because those amounts are different every year and they don't know how much they're really going to pay until they get in line [at the bookstore]," she said. "We want to make sure kids have all their supplies and are choosing classes based on their interest versus how much they have to pay."
But Patchak-Layman says she also opposes the fee because it's unfair to those families who typically don't receive a waiver to help pay for textbooks.
Low-income students who qualify for free and reduced lunch normally receive a textbook waiver. Under the fee model, those students still would not have to pay for books and materials. But Patchak-Layman insists that the school should ditch plans for a fee and bear the cost itself. Otherwise, parents, she said, who normally don't qualify for a waiver will be paying for their kids' books plus for those who normally would qualify for a waiver.
"Fee waiver students should be paid for out of the general fund—it's the district's responsibility," Patchak-Layman said.
But other board members don't share all of her concerns.
John Allen, a co-chair of the finance committee, said he supports the fee model because it's fair to all parents in having to pay one set amount.
"My concern is about how much parents have to pay for books. I think they should pay less and this accomplishes that," he said.
Board member Amy McCormack, who also chairs the finance committee, said the fee proposal makes financial sense for families and the high school. She also noted that amounts paid by parents for books are usually "all over the board."
"The high school and Cheryl, I believe, made a good faith effort to come up with the best solution for instruction in the long run," McCormack said.
Allen and McCormack agreed that the school should look into the legality of imposing a fee but maintained their support for going to that model.