11 Investigates: Student Fees

By: John Harding Email
By: John Harding Email
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Is our free public education system really free?

Whether it’s student fees or fundraising, parents are being asked to pay more and more to support their child’s school.

The increasing amount parents are paying out of their pockets is only the beginning of a rocky road ahead for schools and the students they serve.

Barbie Grunkmeyer has a familiar story: mother of three active boys, she and her husband both work, and she watches her family budget closely. Imagine her surprise at a recent note from her sons’ Fountain/Fort Carson school, saying her boys had to fill a mid-year list of school supplies.

“It was still more money. It was another $200, and it’s about halfway through the school year. What are we going to do next year, have three long lists?” Grunkmeyer asked.

It’s not just school supplies that are depleting her pocketbook. Every month, she pays for her 5-year-old’s kindergarten and buys food for the entire class. She must also pay for bus service. In all, Grunkmeyer says costs are increasing—while school programs disappear.

“We’re having, as parents, to pocket a lot more than we should have,” she said.

The proof of that is in black and white: student fees just to attend schools, athletic fees, field trip fees, the endless barrage of fundraisers. More families now paying for their children to ride school buses. Supplies parents buy for their own children, handed out for the entire classroom to use.

It has many parents asking: where is the money to pay for what has become less of a “free” public education?

Glen Gustafson, the chief financial officer of District 11 says it’s drying up with budget cuts and higher costs. D-11 is Colorado Springs' largest school district.

“The mentality is that if we work harder, if we just cut deeper, if we just eliminated all the fluff, we could do it…the answer is, that’s just not true,” Gustafson told 11 News.

D-11 has weathered budget cuts each of the past six years. Gustafson predicts schools will reach their lowest legal level of state funding within three years. He said that would close many neighborhood schools, put an end to athletics and arts for many, and keep adding to the expenses parents are already facing.

Governor Hickenlooper spoke to 11 News about the quandary schools are finding themselves in.

“If we’re not going to raise taxes, or get more money by some magical formula, if we’re going to have to make do with the resources we have, how do we get the most out of it?”

Those resources, according to the governor, would be businesses partnering with public schools, increased ingenuity, and—most importantly—teacher development.

“We know a great teacher overcomes everything…so how do we take good teachers and make them into great teachers?”

But what if those great teachers turn to other states that offer higher pay and better funding?

“We’re going to lose the best and the brightest…those left are going to be disgruntled, and we’ll struggle to get any student achievement,” Gustafson said.

With few clear-cut solutions, the governor says it’s time for solutions.

“So often in business, when you don’t have the most money, you come up with the greatest ideas of how to do more with less. That’s what schools are trying to do right now, and I think they’re doing it.”

Those ideas can’t come soon enough for parents like Grunkmeyer, who fear current expenses will give way to a much higher potential cost: a challenged education for our children, a price they would pay for a lifetime.

Bottom line: the obvious solution is either more revenue through taxes or other means, finding new ways of educating a lower cost, or a combination of both.

Colorado currently ranks among the 10 lowest states for school funding.

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