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School board weighs cost that student activity fees have on student participation

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The San Francisco Board of Education has approved a $73.3 million budget for enrichment programs at city schools. (Laura Waxmann/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco education leaders postponed a vote on a policy on Tuesday that would limit prerequisites to student participation in extracurricular activities — including waiving costs to school performances or events that may prevent low-income students from partaking.

The policy was first brought before the Board of Education in January by student delegates seeking to ensure equity in regard to participation for all students — regardless of their socioeconomic status or academic standing — in after-school activities, but was met with significant pushback.

Dozens of high school students and their teachers who spoke during public comment on Tuesday expressed lingering concerns that without charging students to attend certain events — such as after-school theater and musical performances — these programs would cease to exist due to lack of funding at some schools.

On Tuesday, the school board voted 6-0 to send the policy back to committee to allow for a fiscal analysis of the impact waiving the fees would have on select programs. They also called for additional input from students and teachers on the policy’s impact, and to hear about potential alternatives.

“This should not be a situation where we make anyone feel that by ensuring access to students … that we would somehow potentially be eliminating [these programs] all together,” said Commissioner Matt Haney, who is also a supervisorial candidate. “We want to strengthen and grow these programs and at the same time we want to make sure everyone has access to them.”

Multiple students from Lowell High School and George Washington High school spoke to the value after school music and arts programs have added to their lives. They attested to the difficulties of funding these programs — musicals can cost up to $25,000 due to licensing, said one speaker.

“A theater teacher knows that the rights and licensing for producing a play can cost $5,000 to $10,000,” said former chair of the Visual Performing Arts Department at Lowell High School Teresa Bookwalter. “The school has to pay the district for security and for janitorial services — these are huge fees.”

At many schools across the district, these costs are financed by the fundraising efforts of student organizations or school departments.

Bookwalter implored the board to “include the voices of teachers and coaches who lead and direct extra curricular activities” before approving regulations that would make participation in extracurricular and cocurricular activities free.

School Board Commissioner Shamann Walton pointed out that despite “charity tickets” reserved for low-income students at some schools, not all students are able or willing to participate in educational and extracurricular opportunities offered by their schools for a price.

“I wonder … how it feels to have to self-identify as someone who can’t pay,” said Walton. “There’s a huge stigma associated with that and I see lack of understanding in some of the advocacy here tonight.”

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