AUGUSTA — As state and federal funding for schools decreases, school districts are increasingly choosing to fill budget gaps by charging fees for students who take part in activities such as sports, clubs and performing arts.

At least three districts in the Augusta area have instituted pay-to-participate fees in the past three years, with a wide range in the size of the fees and the programs to which they apply.

Hallowell-based Regional School Unit 2 is reconsidering the structure of its pay-to-participate fees following complaints from the parents of athletes, who are the only ones paying the fees now.

“We’ve started receiving complaints that we’re picking on — ‘again’ — on sports,” Farmingdale school board member Linda Leet said at a recent meeting. “And why is it just sports? Why isn’t it the chess club, why isn’t it the band?”

Sports tend to be the most expensive activities for schools because they require transportation to games, upkeep of facilities, uniforms and referees.

Other activities, however, have their own expenses, such as a stipend for a club’s faculty advisor, or travel to debate, drama and music competitions.

A committee of the RSU 2 school board plans to examine the expenses of each activity or program and decide who should be charged a participation fee.

“My recommendation is for activities that do require that we pay a stipend, that do require that we provide transportation, that we charge the same as for sports,” Superintendent Virgel Hammonds told the board last month.

RSU 2, which includes Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell, Monmouth and Richmond, adopted pay-to-participate this year to help make up for a $50,000 cut to the activities budget.

Hammonds said in an interview that he doesn’t know how much the fees will raise, but it’s unlikely to be $50,000.

RSU 2′s fees are the lowest in the area. It costs $20 to play a sport, and there’s a $40 cap per student and a $60 cap per family. Students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch are not charged.

“We didn’t want there to be a huge shock to families,” Hammonds said. “We know that families are already struggling. They’re already supportive of our schools.”

One option the school board discussed was a sliding scale of fees based on the cost to the school district of each activity.

Whitefield resident Mary Ackerson has two children attending Hall-Dale High School, and each of them plays two sports. She said she doesn’t mind the participation fees, especially because Whitefield School also had them, but thinks it would be fair to charge for activities besides sports that incur costs.

“If the whole idea is that we’re paying to supply uniforms and stuff like that, then yeah, probably everybody should pay,” she said.

Maranacook high and middle schools in Readfield-based RSU 38 are in their third year of participation fees for sports and the second for some other activities, such as the fall play or speech and debate.

High school participants pay $60 per activity, and middle school students pay $40 per activity, Athletic Director Al MacGregor said. There are no discounts for low-income families, who can apply to the Maranacook Educational Foundation if they need help paying the fees.

“Some parents will organize fundraising to cover the cost for the kids,” MacGregor said. “Some parents are tired of fundraising and just pay the fee.”

This fall, for example, the girl’s soccer team organized a car wash to raise money for the participation fees of the girls that helped.

MacGregor said the fees bring in $20,000 to $30,000 each year.

“There’s many people that prefer not to pay it, but for the most part people want to keep the athletic programs or the co-curricular programs intact, so it’s been fairly positive,” he said.

Winthrop Public Schools has taken a slightly different approach to pay-to-participate. Last year, the high school and middle school instituted an all-inclusive $100 fee per student, with a family cap of $200. There are lower fees for students eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

Students who pay the fee can participate in as many extracurricular or co-curricular activities as they want for a whole year.

“You can look at it in a sense of it’s expensive if you were to be involved in one item,” Winthrop High School Principal Keith Morin said. “I like to look at it on a more positive note, that it encourages students to get involved in more clubs and activities, due to the fact that they can.”

About three-quarters of the high school’s students are involved in at least one activity.

It took three tries for Winthrop schools to win voter approval of its budget, and given the likelihood of another tight budget next year, school officials and community members soon will begin evaluating all school activities based on a rubric of cost and participation, Morin said.

So far, he said, parents have preferred that the school board maintain programs, even if they’re dependent on participation fees or other community-based funding.

A similar attitude has prevailed in Monmouth, where Monmouth Athletic Boosters President Roberta Kemp said she has not heard any complaints about pay-to-participate.

Parents may be accustomed to the idea because Monmouth Middle School and Monmouth Academy had their own systems of participation fees several years ago. Kemp said the fees applied to more than just sports, but student athletes paid higher fees because those programs cost more.

“For a student to play a varsity sport before it was $60, so for $20 (this year), it was nothing,” she said. “At the budget meetings, parents said if it came down to whether or not they were going to cut the activity, they would be willing to pay to keep it.”

Susan McMillan– 621-5645
smcmillan@mainetoday.com