Refunds from Harlem schools?

A legal guardian of three students in the Harlem School District has alleged the district failed to give adequate notice to parents and legal guardians of students eligible for student fee waivers. The alleged failure to give proper notice may have cost each low-income family up to hundreds of dollars each school year since 1991. As many as 1,279 or more parents/guardians of students and all Harlem School District taxpayers may be affected.

According to a May 29 letter from Harlem Superintendent John Hurley, the district has already made an offer to the legal guardian for “past fees that could have been waived.”

Hurley said the district will work with parents/guardians who come forward to document their claim that they are eligible for refunds of past fee waivers that were not awarded.

Local attorney Jeff Heckinger confirmed that he has been given information regarding this story and is considering action within the next 30 days. Heckinger is also one of the attorneys behind the federal lawsuit that prompted the referendum to pay for construction of the county’s proposed $110 million jail.

State law requires public schools to “adopt a written policy and administrative procedures for the waiver of school fees” that “must be implemented no later than 1991-1992 school year.” State law also mandates that students eligible for free lunches or breakfasts are also eligible for waiver of student fees.

At the beginning of the 1991-1992 school year, Donald C. Parker took the helm as superintendent of Harlem. Parker died in 1995. The earliest document found referring to the fee waivers was a 1998 memorandum from Hurley to school principals. Hurley became superintendent in 1996 and is retiring at the end of this month.

The guardian called The Rock River Times May 7 to express concerns about alleged problems in obtaining information from the district. In an effort to obtain the information, The Rock River Times assisted the guardian in how to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the district. The guardian was also assisted in obtaining information by school board member Gloria Kelly. During an interview Tuesday, Hurley and other administrators supplied all requested information and answered all questions.

Hurley’s May 29 letter indicates that the letter serves as a response to the guardian’s FOIA request. The letter reads: “our intention is to come to a mutual agreement on the dollar amount of money the District should refund you for past fees that could have been waived.

“…You asked for records showing that the opportunity for fee waivers by those qualifying for free lunch was in past years posted in the media. I find no records that such posting occurred. Informing parents of eligibility for fee waivers was left to principals and handbooks at the building level and that process was not consistent. We are taking measures to correct that inconsistency in the future. Your point is well taken.”

According to Harlem’s policy that was adopted May 10, 1999, “The school district shall announce its waiver of student fees policy on or about the beginning of every school year and whenever there is a change in policy. …”

Also, “A public release containing the same information supplied to parent(s)/guardian(s) shall be made available to the media on or about the beginning of each school year and whenever there is a change in the policy.” The policy also requires parents/guardians to complete an application for waiver of student fees for review by the school principal.

Betsy Kelly, director of Harlem food services, said during the past school year, 1,279 students (about 17 percent of the student population) were eligible for free lunches. Hurley said eligibilty for free lunch or under Article IV of the Illinois Public Aid Code also serves as the determining factor for eligibilty of student fee waivers.

For comparison, Jim Jennings, communications director for Rockford Public Schools, said 63 percent, or 16,495 students in Rockford who are eligible for free or reduced lunch must apply for the student waiver to receive it for that year.

A May 22 article by Hurley in The (Machesney Park/Loves Park) Post-Journal reads: “Another item on the minds of a lot of people lately, with justification is the high fees that parents will be paying next year. With the loss of the recent referendums, the Board of Education raised student fees significantly in an effort to find revenue alternatives. Because the fees are so expensive, building principals will be willing to work out payment plans over the course of the school year.”

For example, last year the athletic fee for participation in one sport was $50 and will increase to $200 next year. Last year, there was no activity fee for secondary schools. Next year, $25 will be charged to each secondary school student.

For information on filing a Freedom of Information Act request, visit

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