Montville's Activity Fee: An Imperfect Solution
Parents cope with charge to all middle and high school students.
The Montville Township Board of Education began receiving public feedback on its activity fee at it's meeting on Aug. 31.
One of the first people to ask about its nature was Mustang Association Co-President Cheryl Meytrott. She wanted to know if every student, regardless of participation, was required to pay the fee. She also asked about cuts from the freshman girls soccer team, an issue that " a lot of people were upset about."
Board President Dr. Karen Cortillino addressed her questions in the public portion of the meeting. Even then, admitted that the fee was an imperfect solution to the district's budget issues.
"It's not the ideal situation for this year," she said at the meeting, adding that the fee was put together in an "almost urgent" fashion.
"It was something put together quickly," she said. "We are thankful for the support of the community as we try to make this year the best it can be. Every $100 not collected is $100 lost to the budget."
The board moved on with its meeting. It had heard its first question about its fee. It would not be the last.
Though the fee was first discussed in public in late August, parents were made aware of the $100 flat fee for all middle and high school students in a letter from the district that arrived in township homes earlier in the summer. According to Board Business Administrator James Tevis, the fee was in the works even before then.
"The item was placed in the budget in May, but it was maybe mid-to-late April that we first seriously looked at it," he said. "We placed it as a general offset fee, not something specifically for activities. It's not a pay-to-play fee, it's to offset the extraordinary loss of state aid."
State budget cuts enacted by Gov. Chris Christie earlier in the year resulted in the loss $3.2 million in state funding to the district. Tevis said that this fee was a way to try to make some of the lost money back, but that the policy did not have much time to be developed.
"The board really had its feet put in the fire on this," he said. "We only had 36 hours from the loss of our state funding to turn a budget around. It was very backhanded how this was done in Trenton, and we had to try and make up millions in house. It was quick and dirty."
The final version of the fee looked like this: all students of both Montville Township High School and Lazar Middle School were asked to pay a $100. Students who paid the fee would be allowed to participate in extracurricular sports or activities. Those who did not pay the fee would not be allowed to participate.
"If you do not pay the fee, you may not participate," Superintendent Dr. Paul Fried said. "No one will be reprimanded if they choose not to pay. We've asked the community to bear with us in our first attempt."
In the weeks that followed, parents began to call Tevis with questions about the fee. Residents wrote letters and discussed the fee during meetings. According to Montville High School Parent Teacher Council President Kathy Lindert, reactions have been mixed.
"There has been some concern," she said. "Some people are saying they have no problem paying it. Those without children in activities are saying they shouldn't have to pay it."
She says she understands both sides of the argument.
"If I didn't have a child involved in an activity or sport, would I be angry? Yes," she said. "But the district is working. Based on a lack of time to find money, [the board] jumped to what they thought was the best solution."
Lindert said that initial questions have been answered, and at least at the high school, where she estimates about 90 percent of children are involved in some kind of extracurricular activity, most participants have paid the fee.
At Lazar Middle School, Parent Teacher Council Co-President Michele Turnbull said that most parents have come to an understanding about the fee.
"At this point, parents understand why they've had to move in this direction, with the budget cuts," she said. "A lot aren't opposed to the fee."
Part of the middle school's acceptance of the cost could be due to the reinstatement of extracurricular programs. Budget cuts caused the board to cut 32 extracurricular programs from the middle school, 18 of those programs have since been re-established.
"I didn't think [the fee] was a reasonable way to go, imposing a $100 activity fee and cutting activities," Turnbull said. "We've made suggestions to the board, and I think they were receptive to our recommendations. They did the best they could, given the time constraints."
Fried said that, while residents should get used to this kind of situation, the current fee structure will probably not look the same next year.
"How it's shaped for next year will look very different," he said. "We've had questions, of course. People have been concerned, and we're trying to answer those questions. As we go into this year, we're going to have public conversations about the situation. The public can weigh in and we can start making decisions for next year in light of what the community starts."
According to Fried and Tevis, changes are already being discussed. Tevis said that the board has formed a policy committee to address the issue and look at ways to structure the fee.
"The committee has already put out a draft," he said. "It's not ready for the public yet, but we are actively working on this situation."
Specifics on what the fee might look like next year have not yet been made available.
Lindert and Turnbull said that parents are pleased that the issue is being discussed, though Lindert doesn't expect the fee to go away.
"We don't know what's going to happen with state cuts," she said. "Parents have to recognize that when the budget fails, things like this happen."
Cortillino, for her part, has maintained her praise for the township, from the first questions at the board's Aug. 31 meeting to now.
"We've got a great community here," she said.
Like Fried, she doesn't think the issue is going anywhere. She said the board has discussed holding a meeting with the public just for discussion on the issue.
"EduNation: A Patch Report on Our Schools" is a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on our schools. For more information, see here.