Parents of Elmhurst middle school students received an early Christmas present from Unit District 205 in their in-boxes Thursday evening.
"This is to inform you that all middle school band/orchestra/chorus students who paid the early morning bus fee that was implemented this fall will receive a refund from District 205," the email said. "Because these courses are graded, busing must be provided at no charge."
While there is little doubt parents are pleased with the news, it raised many questions. For one: If nothing has changed since the fee was determined last April—the transportation budget for activity buses still is not reimbursed by the state, and band, orchestra and chorus were and still are "graded" courses—what prompted the refund?
The simple answer is, District 205 Superintendent David Pruneau.
When Pruneau, who joined the district in July, learned about the bus fee, he consulted the district's attorneys. The process that led up to the refund has been ongoing for months.
"Upon further investigation of these fees, it was determined that charging for transportation to attend a graded class is not allowed under school code," Pruneau said in an e-mail to Elmhurst Patch on Friday. "Once this information was verified, we moved as quickly as possible to determine the best way to refund the money to our parents."
Establishment of a bus fee was initiated under the previous administration and led by then-Superintendent Lynn Krizic and Assistant Superintendent for Finance Pat Masterton. The fee was the topic of much debate last spring and summer. by the fee, which originally was set at $165 per student per semester, or $330 per year, for any student using the early and late buses. This was in addition to on everything from athletics to summer school to art classes.
Parents questioned how the bus fee came about, since it was not part of the original (known as EEPRT) that was used to determine budget cuts and revenue enhancements last winter.
Parent Teacher Student Association member Margaret Harrell, who also served on one of the EEPRT committees, was among the first to bring the fee to light at an April School Board meeting.
"Try to help me understand this increase,” Harrell said at that time.
Masterton said the School Board asked her to look at any and all options to improve the district's financial picture.
"The board directed the administration to explore additional cuts and ‘cost recovery’ measures beyond what was brought forth by the EEPRT process,” Masterton said in April.
Only from that group of seven.
On Friday, Public Relations Director Melea Smith said many school districts do not even offer this type of bus service, and the former administration considered band, orchestra and chorus to be voluntary. She also said that between the time EEPRT recommendations were issued in January and the board voted on budget cuts and fee increases in March, "the state made huge cuts to its transportation reimbursements" to Illinois schools.
"The District 205 administration was looking for a way to shore up transportation dollars, especially for these 'extra' bus runs," she said.
What followed was a parent outcry, months of discussion and an that ultimately led to the by about 77 percent in June. Parents who chose to have their kids ride the activity bus ended up paying $75 per year, and four afternoon bus routes at the middle and high school level were eliminated. Students also have been able to purchase per-use tickets at each school for $1.
So now, in November, the fees are gone—for the early buses, anyway. After-school bus riders still will have to pay a fee, as "involvement in these extracurricular activities is voluntary," said Chris Whelton, as assistant superintendent of finance and operations last summer.
He said it's too soon to know exactly how much is being refunded. Parents have until Nov. 18 to request the refund.
"This is a difficult issue to resolve," Whelton said Friday. "We're doing our best to expedite this in the fairest way possible."
Will the district have to find some way to make up the cost? Perhaps, but parents will not have to worry about more fees, he said.
“Going forward, we will be looking at everything in the next round of budget discussions," Whelton said. "We don’t plan to make any further adjustments in terms of fees to the FY12 budget.”
The band, orchestra and choral programs did not see a drop in enrollment this year due to the fees, Smith said, but "anecdotal evidence" shows that more parents have been driving their children to school.
Middle school band, orchestra and chorus student who did not pay a fee this year may immediately begin riding the early bus.