Clearing hurdles

The Astoria School District has eliminated most sports and other activity fees in hopes of increasing student participation.

Astoria will eliminate or reduce most extracurricular activity fees to increase student participation in sports and music.

The Astoria School Board on Wednesday night approved a $21.5 million operating budget for the next school year, a $1.5 million increase from this year’s budget. The budget eliminates most student fees, including $125 per student for high school sports.

The fees account for about $75,000 in revenue.

“The board started this conversation about two years ago about fees, but I had to be able to do it financially,” said Craig Hoppes, the Astoria schools superintendent.

Increased state funding, steady enrollment and careful managing of pension costs all buffeted the school district’s finances, allowing it to ensure students can participate in activities without cost barriers, Hoppes said.

While eliminating almost all extracurricular fees, the school district cut fees for students in band — a particularly expensive program — by half.

Nathan Hankwitz has four children in the school district, including three daughters at Astoria High School all wanting to play multiple sports. He said he would pay up to $400 a year in fees, in addition to travel costs to go see them play.

“It’s a huge, huge thing for a family like mine that has multiple kids,” he said.

Astoria looked at the Tillamook School District, which eliminated activity fees several years ago and has seen an increase in participation by demographics such as females, said Grace Laman, a school board member.

Jewell School District, a rural district sustained by timber taxes, also doesn’t charge student activity fees.

The school board’s support to end activity fees was unanimous.

“They’re able to develop a like or interest in something, and then they don’t have to worry about buying a uniform or anything else that goes with it,” said Jimmy Pearson, a school board member.

David Oser, a retired chief financial officer for regional lender Craft3, was defeated in the May election by school psychologist Heidi Wintermute. Oser had pointed to the elimination of student activity fees as one of his biggest accomplishments while on the school board.

Charging fees became necessary during the Great Recession to make up for a shortfall in state revenue.

“With the additional funding that we now have in the governor’s budget, and hopefully the Student Success Act, this revenue source is no longer necessary,” Oser said.

Randy Schild, the superintendent of Tillamook schools, said student participation in extracurricular activities jumped more than 30% since the school district eliminated fees four years ago, especially among Hispanic students and those in poverty. The students who participate show markedly better attendance and fail fewer classes because of increased accountability and time around a responsible adult, he said.

“The value’s just too good to pass up,” Schild said. “I commend (Astoria) for looking at this and realizing it’s good for kids.”

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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