With two children in junior high and another in elementary school, Susie Johannesen's back-to-school bill was already substantial, thanks to new clothes and classroom supplies.
But there's also the $624 she owed Cary Elementary District 26 to register the kids for the coming school year.
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Registration contrastsHere are high and low registration costs among suburban public school districts.
Butler Dist. 53
Marquardt Dist. 15
High school districts
Northwest HS Dist. 214
*DuPage HS Dist. 88
Huntley Unit Dist. 158
East Aurora Unit Dist. 131
*Note: District 88 charges additional fees for specific academic courses.
Source: School districts
"Then there are fees for band and sports. They pass everything on to parents," Johannesen complained. "I work in a school district 10 miles away and parents there pay half of that."
Actually, it's less than half. Johannesen works in Crystal Lake Elementary District 47, where at $210 for three kids, it would cost about one-third as much in registration fees to attend public school.
Cary District 26 has one of the highest registration fees among suburban elementary school districts, according to an analysis of more than 80 suburban school districts in six counties. Illinois law allows school districts to charge fees for materials and "consumables," but the law doesn't limit those charges or require districts to maintain those funds in a separate account.
Because there's no uniformity required by the law for what is covered by registration fees, suburban school districts charge as little as $28 for a first-grader at Marquardt Elementary District 15 in Glendale Heights and as much as $433 for some high school students at Maine Township High School District 207.
These fees can be used to cover an array of items including gym clothes, computer software upgrades and locks. Some suburban school districts also inflate registration fees for kindergartners, eighth-graders and high school seniors to cover graduation costs.
In some school districts, registration fees can amount to millions of dollars of revenue each year. That's on top of property taxes, where schools make up the lion's share of homeowners' property tax bills.
"Maybe the fees are a little bit higher, but I don't think they're unreasonable," said Julie Jette, the District 26 school board secretary, saying it's fair for parents to bear the costs. "You're not passing it on to senior citizens or people who have no children."
That argument doesn't hold water with another District 26 parent. Joe Alfe is part of a group of parents that has criticized District 26 finances. He said it would be one thing to pay higher registration fees if the property taxes were reduced, but ...
"The property taxes went up," he said. "It's a public school. We've already paid for this."
State Rep. Sandy Pihos, a Glen Ellyn Republican who sits on the House education committee, said it's time to look at the law governing public school registration fees.
"Whether these fees are appropriate or if there needs to be more guidance about what they can charge, I think that's worth a discussion," she said. "I don't know that we want to give them another mandate, but providing details about what they actually are paying for, I don't disagree there must be accountability."
District 26 Superintendent Brian Coleman defended the fees, noting the district has frozen fees at the current level "for the past three years and including the coming year."
Coleman said the higher costs are associated with the district's curriculum.
"A few years ago we opted for a more hands-on science curriculum that involved the purchase of significant consumable lab materials and supplies," he said. "In addition, we adopted other (curricula) that required student workbooks and journals to support student learning. All of which are consumed each year by students and need to be replaced."
Parents may apply to have some or all of the fees waived, but they usually have to meet federal qualifications for free or reduced-priced lunches. Most school officials said the majority of parents in the suburban districts don't meet those qualifications.
Unlike the district's annual operating budget, which requires multiple school board meetings and at least one public hearing, school boards can breeze through the process of setting registration fees without alerting parents. Some districts set the fees for years at a time or plan automatic hikes.
Lake Park High School District 108 in Roselle ties registration fees to the inflation rate. Fees were increased 3 percent ahead of this school year, going from $339 to $349. Superintendent Lynne Panega said the school board still debates fee hikes publicly each year despite the district's inflation rate policy.
The fee hike amounts to a little less than $25,000 in new revenue for the district, according to a memo sent by District 108 Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Jeff O'Connell to Panega. He anticipates the district will get about $900,000 this year from registration fees.
"It doesn't even come close to covering those costs," O'Connell said. "The cost of textbooks goes up every year."
Some districts are trying to thwart rising material costs through technological upgrades, but those cost, too.
Parents of freshmen and sophomores at District 207 are paying $433 to register their children this year, compared to the $114 for juniors and $139 for seniors. That's because the younger students are receiving Google Chromebooks that will take the place of textbooks in many of the classes, officials said.
While juniors and seniors at the district will still have to pay itemized fees for many of their classes, the younger students won't have as many of those costs because the materials are in the Chromebooks.
Many districts like District 207 have a la carte fees associated with specific courses. However, other districts have decided to go all-inclusive.
"We rolled everything in together about six or seven years ago," said Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Superintendent David Schuler. "We were hearing from parents how frustrating it was to write multiple checks depending on what classes their children were taking."
District 214 students are charged $425 at registration -- or $25 less if they register early. That covers most costs for the entire year and generates more than $5 million for the district, Schuler said. Driver's education, parking and lunch fees are not included.
But Schuler said the revenue generated from registration fees still "may not completely account for the instructional learning materials."
And though the district has promised parents that a student's registration charge will never increase for all four years of high school, there's not much of a chance it will be reduced, either. Historically, registration fees throughout the suburbs have increased over the years.
"It's not going to go away. The chances of this going away is slim to none," said Johannesen, the District 26 parent. "I just want to know why it's so different everywhere. As a parent, I would love to see something changed."