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Sports fees cause some to ask why; 1 district may restore high per-sport costs.

Byline: M. Elizabeth Roman

User fees for co-curricular activities are not new.

But as cities and towns in the region face failed overrides and tight budgets, school districts are saving programs by instituting or expanding pay-as-you play.

The Ashburnham-Westminster Regional School District is considering a return to hefty user fees for sports and other activities if an $806,000 budget override fails Aug. 14. The North Middlesex Regional School District has already incorporated fees as part of its reduced budget package to member towns. And Fitchburg, Lunenburg and Leominster already charge co-curricular fees.

"As a superintendent, it is really unfortunate if we have to go down the road of user fees," said Michael X. Zapantis, superintendent of schools for Ashburnham-Westminster. "It limits the students from participating."

In 2001, AWRSD charged almost $1,000 per student, per sport, one of the highest fees in the country. The district moved away from that policy after participation dwindled.

"Participation has grown since the fees were dropped," said David P. Uminski, principal for Oakmont High School. "We've also had success on the field."

Kathy C. Anderson, Oakmont Booster Club member and the mother of two former student athletes and one current athlete, said user fees are a step in the wrong direction.

"We've been down this road before," she said. "It was a big mistake."

She said her two sons played basketball and football for four years during the time Oakmont charged $900 per child, per sport.

"I found a way to pay," Ms. Anderson said. "But not every parent is in that position."

Since her elderly parents are on a fixed income, Ms. Anderson said, she can understand why residents with a fixed income would not support the override budget.

"The fees hurt everyone," she said. "When you start charging kids to participate in after-school programs, you will have kids out on the street doing nothing, or at home watching television. Or people looking to relocate in our area may think twice."

However, despite the fact that a majority of its members charge user fees, athletic participation has increased in recent years, according to the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Last year, an all-time high of 160,000 students participated in school sports in the state, said Paul Wetzel, MIAA spokesman.

"While the amount and the number of districts using them has gone up, user fees have been around for a long time," he said. He added that school hockey teams have almost always charged user fees because of expensive ice-time rental and gear.

"And we still have a strong tradition of hockey in our schools," he said. Mr. Wetzel said most districts allow for a fee waiver if a student is on free or reduced lunch.

Leominster charges $75 per sport, per athlete, with a discount of $35 for the second athlete in the family. The district also has a $150 ice hockey fee.

In NMRSD, parents will pay $50 per sport for the middle school and $75 per sport for the high school, as well as for marching band participation - a direct result of the budget crunch.

Fitchburg School District charges $40 per sport, per student. The fees bring in about $2,100 per fiscal year for the athletic department.

Ray Cozenza, Fitchburg athletic director, said the fee has never prevented anyone from participating. He said about 25 percent of student athletes get their fees waived.

"We make very clear it is not a deterrent to students who can't afford it," he said.

Nadine B. Binkley, superintendent for the Leominster School District, said user fees don't address the true cost of activities. However, every little bit helps the bottom line.

"I wish we didn't have to charge user fees," Ms. Binkley said. "But it's become a reality in most school systems."
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 24, 2007
Words:629
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