Signal Mountain school board member Jonathan Welch estimates that Hamilton County parents spend between $3 and $4 million annually on school fees charged to students that fund everything from paper and pencils to cheerleading pom poms and marching band uniforms.
"The range of school fees is mind-boggling," he said at Thursday night's school board meeting. "We couldn't run the schools without this, and this is essentially another tax on parents."
Welch gave the example of a nurse at Signal Mountain High School sending out an email request for donations of Kleenex, because she had run out.
"This is an example of how our budget's held together with duct tape and bailing wire," he said.
So Welch made a motion that passed 8-1 to postpone voting for a month on a 23-page of list of fees proposed for Hamilton County's 76 public schools, partly to see how the county commission will vote on a request from the school district for a $34 million budget increase.
The proposed budget increase could alleviate some of the need for school fees because the school district requested an additional $1 million in block grants meant to cover the cost of supplies for teachers, staff and students along with $2 million for instructional resources.
Or, if the money doesn't come through, schools may have to charge even more, Welch said.
"There may be principals that ... have to up their fees," he said.
That led to some venting on the board about the fees.
"It grieves me," Soddy-Daisy board member Rhonda Thurman said. "These school fees, every year [the list] gets longer and longer and longer. I see light bulbs listed on some of these -- come on, now."
Sierra Turner of Hixson High School, who served her last meeting as the school board's student member, said she wasn't able to do some labs at school because some students didn't pay their fees.
Students aren't required to pay the fees, said Hixson school board member Greg Martin, who cast the sole no vote.
"It does give an opportunity for parents and communities ... to make their community school more prosperous," Martin said in defense of fees.
Welch also said that he doesn't think Hamilton County school officials don't know how much fees cover, and he mentioned the school district's lawsuit against Tennessee alleging that the state's Basic Education Program school funding formula is inadequate. School district attorney D. Scott Bennett said he's been interviewing principals about the fees' importance.
"Frankly, I've been stunned," Bennett said of what he described as "so-called voluntary fees," which he dislikes.
"At least two principals have said that if they don't charge fees, they will not have enough computers to do the state-mandated testing next year," Bennett said. "If your schools do not have the opportunity to charge fees. You will not have school plain and simple."
While Thurman doesn't like the fees, she didn't think the school district should look for outside funding.
"We're going to have to find that in our own budget," she said.
In other business, the school board postponed for a month spending about $1.5 million for new math textbooks.
During public comment, Kevin Muhammad, a Nation of Islam member, told the board that students have been harassed and punished by employees at the Howard School in retribution for their support of the school's band director, Dexter Bell, who was suspended on May 1 and escorted off campus.
Muhammad, who came with a group of about two dozen students, parents and others associated with Howard, alleged there were "several incidences of sexual inappropriateness" at the school and said, "this cannot be swept under the rug."
School Superintendent Rick Smith told the board, "Any allegation that we're given is thoroughly investigated."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.