As suburban families struggle to pay their bills, there is one expense they seem to be paying less frequently than before -- school fees.
Unpaid fees and fines are adding up to some big amounts across the suburbs, but school business officials said there's only so much districts can do to recoup the money.
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As of June 30, 2010, Northwest High School District 214 was owed $32,556.72 in delinquent fees and fines, said Deb Parenti, associate superintendent for finance and operations. By June 30, 2012, the debt had increased more than 10 times, to $331,067.03.
In Maine Township High School 207 and Elgin Area School District U-46, the debt is more than $100,000; at Glenbard High School District 87, it is nearly $200,000. Even smaller districts like Kaneland Unit District 302, where parents owe more than $35,000 in back fees and fines, are feeling the trend.
The unpaid money is from textbook, registration, activity and sports fees, driver's education, transportation and overdue library books. Depending on the school and the activities a student joins, fees can range from $100 to $500 per year.
Collecting the money
The state is offering a new way schools can get their money. In the Local Debt Recovery Program, the Illinois comptroller's office diverts money from state-issued paychecks, tax refunds, commercial vendor payments and lottery winnings to pay off a person's debt. Any local government -- villages, school districts, fire protection districts, and more -- can sign up. Chicago and Elk Grove Village are using it to collect on parking tickets and other moving violations, among other uses, and the College of DuPage is also using it.
Kaneland District 302 and District 214 have signed up for the debt recovery, but have not pulled the trigger to start using it.
"Basically the program was created to allow local governments to collect debts by automatically deducting it from people's tax refunds or state payments," said Ares Dalianis, a lawyer who recently presented the program to a group of Northwest suburban school business officials.
The person who is said to owe money will get written notice and 60 days to protest the deduction, before the amount owed is transferred to the school plus a $15 service fee.
"I wouldn't be surprised if it's something (schools) look into," Dalianis said. "School districts ... are looking to maximize revenues in every way possible and this gives them a streamlined and efficient way to collect amounts that are due. Every little bit counts."
Although similar in size to District 214, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 is not facing similar fee debt.
District 211 has not raised student registration fees since 2005, when voters approved a tax increase by referendum, and has been bringing in the same level of money -- about $1.5 million -- each year, said spokesman Tom Petersen.
For students who can't pay their fees, Petersen said the district helps find them jobs in the cafeteria or custodial area to work off their debt.
"It gives them an option to help with finances and it helps teach responsibility," he said.
In Grayslake High School District 127, officials have a different way of ensuring the school gets the money.
Students can't get their transcripts unless their fees and fines are paid in full, said Mike Zelek, associate superintendent for business services. Because of that, he said the collection rate for graduating seniors is nearly 100 percent.
In Elgin Area School District U-46, the fee structure recently changed to a flat fee for all students, rather than some paying more for certain classes, said Dale Burnidge, director of financial operations.
Fees add up to a large sum of money in a district as large as U-46, bringing in more than $2.5 million each year. While that number has stayed stable, in 2011-2012, Burnidge said there was still $131,463 left uncollected.
Burnidge said U-46 started using a collection agency in 2011-2012, while in the past each school made its own collection efforts.
Penalties for unpaid fees don't always work though. Glenbard High School District 87 won't send a student's driver ed paperwork to the Secretary of State if that student is in arrears.
It means they can't get their license if fees are not up to date, but often that is not enough of a deterrent, said Chris McClain, assistant superintendent for business services.
In June of this year, District 87 had $198,430 in outstanding fee debt.
"It's an increasing challenge for us, especially in these economic times," McClain said.
McClain said the district has discussed both the state program or using collection agencies, but has not moved forward yet out of empathy for what families are going through right now.
"My personal preference would be to work closely with the families. A collection agency is a serious thing, it shows up on their credit records in the future," he said.
The district has done a few things to help students who don't qualify for a waiver but are having a hard time paying, he said. Employees collected about $15,000 last year through an optional payroll deduction that went to help families in the district.
"We had other charities come to us a while back asking about payroll deductions and we thought, why not help our own students and families first?" he said.
More fee waivers
School districts are also losing money due to an increasing number of students on fee waivers.
In District 87, about 26 percent of the district's 8,600 students are considered low income this year, about double from 10 years ago, McClain said. With registration fees in the district at about $400 per student, that is about $1 million that the district can't collect each year. Similarly, District 211 misses out on about $500,000 because about 27 percent of the student body is on fee waivers, Petersen said.
The numbers are higher than that across Illinois.
Schools follow federal income guidelines used for free or reduced lunches to assess who is eligible for waivers.
In 2003 about 43 percent of students in Illinois were eligible for free or reduced price lunches according to national income guidelines. In 2012 those students now number nearly 54 percent of students statewide, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
In District 214 there has been about a 200 percent increase in the number of students receiving fee waivers since the 2003-2004 school year, said Deb Parenti, associate superintendent for finance and operations.
"We have to pay for things whether parents pay their fees or not, so anything we don't collect is a cost to the district and the taxpayers," she said.
The guidelines though, change each year and may not account for families living right on the edge.
For example, to qualify for free lunch in 2012-2013, a family of four must make less than $29,965, according to the national guidelines. But, as McClain said, a single mom with three kids could be making $30,000 a year and not qualify for a waiver, but still have a difficult time making ends meet and paying fees.
"It's increasingly difficult for families to prioritize how they spend their money right now," McClain said. "It's hard on everyone."
Fees: Increasing challenge in tough economic times