Back-to-school costs to climb, survey finds

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Getting your kids ready for school this year could cost a lot more, according to a survey by Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bank.

Huntington's Backpack Index polls schools in the bank's six-state region, which includes Pittsburgh, on what they require for elementary, middle and high school-aged students. It then determines what such bundles cost at major retailers like Staples. It found that families will fork over 10 percent to 25 percent more this year to get their children ready for the classroom.

Elementary school supply costs leapt to an average of $530 from $474, about 12 percent; middle school expenses soared the most, up to $681 from $545, a jump of 25 percent; and families with high schoolers will now have to shell out an average of $1,091 to pay for such items as graphing calculators and AP exam preparation books, a 9 percent increase.

The surge comes not only from the increased price of school supplies but from cash-strapped schools turning to so-called pay-to-play fees -- charges for activities like sports, band and drama. Average pay-to-participate fees for high school students jumped to $145 this year, and for the first time in the index's six-year history, middle schools implemented such fees as well, averaging $125 per student.

"The reason we did this is because when you have children, when they first come home from school, they have their list of supplies; pencils, papers, erasers, and you think, 'Oh, this isn't so much, we can afford this.' And then they come home the next day and say, 'I really want to play an instrument,' and you have to figure out the rental cost, and they come home the next day and say, 'I really want to play a sport,' and you have to figure out equipment costs," said Huntington spokeswoman Maureen Brown.

"This year, we had the biggest increase ever, and that is because schools across the country are instituting pay-to-play fees, so we really wanted to help families be aware that this is happening and see how they can save."

Central Michigan University chair of sports and physical education Scott J. Smith, who follows the trend of schools instituting pay-to-play fees, said in a Huntington-issued release that the fees have become a fixture of educational expense.

"Clearly, the national trend in school districts across the board right now is to add or increase pay-to-participate fees," he said. "This makes it increasingly difficult for families whose children want to play extracurricular school sports."

One local mom, Lisa Varraro of Shaler, said she works at the Primanti Bros. stand at PNC Park to raise funds for her two boys, whose band costs have skyrocketed, and said she now must carefully consider what activities her four children can join.

"In my non-work days I work at the stadium in the Primanti's booth," she said. "That's ultimately a fundraiser; we don't technically get paid by Primanti's. The money I earn that day goes straight into the band account."

Among the local school districts that have begun charging pay-to-play or comparable fees under different names are North Allegheny, Seneca Valley, Highlands, McGuffey, Bethel Park, Ambridge, New Brighton, Mars Area and Upper St. Clair.


Sam Butterfield: sbutterfield@post-gazette.com .


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