How can school districts provide the best education money can buy – without cutting valuable extracurricular activities and without continually doing it through tax increases?

That’s one tall order for our school officials. And it’s a particularly daunting challenge in our region, where enrollments are dropping, buildings are crumbling, transportation and food supply costs are skyrocketing, and good teachers are rightfully demanding good salaries.

One answer, although sure to be controversial, might be found in what has been done in the Hempfield Area School District in Westmoreland County. Officials there have enacted student fees instead of increasing property taxes.

Unfortunately, officials are finding it difficult to collect the “pay-to-play” fees for students who want to play sports or participate in other activities. One reason could very well be that some parents just can’t afford or aren’t willing to pay the extra money no matter how little.

Here’s how the plan is supposed to work: Students must pay $20 to participate in clubs, use a computer lab or use fitness centers. Student-athletes, cheerleaders and band members must pay $50 to participate.

The district says all athletes have paid, but most students involved in other activities have not.

It’s not unusual to have parent booster clubs chip in to help defray or even pay entirely the costs of providing a sport or for a band to participate in competitions. Or for that matter, for students in extracurricular activities to conduct fundraisers.

In the Rockwood Area School District in Somerset County, the student-fee concept was proposed this year as a way to address a shortfall caused by a serious budgeting error. As it turned out, parents, sports boosters and businesses across Somerset County raised nearly $130,000 needed to fund 13 athletic and extracurricular programs cut from the budget.

What began as a financial nightmare was a dream realized.

While some parents will argue that they are already paying enough in school taxes to support the costs of extracurricular activities, others would argue that the student-fee concept has merit and should be considered.

It’s essentially a user fee, and one that probably would be well-received by taxpayers whose hard-earned dollars fund schools but who have no children who are reaping the benefits.

It’s certainly a better idea than taxing residents beyond their means, or doing away with extracurricular activities that go a long way to helping provide a well-rounded education.

We’d be interested in hearing the concept de-bated.

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