At Marple Newtown High School, parents were used to coughing up $100 to booster clubs for things such as team T-shirts and jackets, not to mention buying umpteen hoagies and pizzas at fund-raisers.
But this year, they had to shell out an additional $75 if their children wanted to take part in any school activity, from football to French club, to help the cash-strapped district meet its expenses.
Marple is among a growing number of school districts that are charging families for all the extras that they have come to expect but that shrinking school budgets cannot afford.
While the classroom experience is still free - except for those darn school taxes - schools are asking families to chip in for the cost of clubs, activities, and sports.
At Radnor High, students need more than a good voice to be in the spring musical. Cast members of Beauty and the Beast had to pay $35 for T-shirts and a preshow dinner.
If they wanted to be on the track team as well, that set them back $30. Playing in the band costs $50. And none of that includes the $50 per student that the PTA assesses for dances and other not-to-be-missed activities.
Oxford asks students to pay $35 for one sport and $10 for a second.
In New Jersey, many districts, including Haddonfield, charge up to $100 for extracurriculars. West Deptford requires students to pay that much to be in the band.
"Parents do feel like ATMs," joked Lisa Williamson, spokeswoman for the Radnor Township School District, which is wrestling with a $3 million gap in the next school year's budget.
These "pay-to-play" fees are becoming more common as school budgets shrink, said David W. Davare, spokesman for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.
"Costs are generally increasing," he said, "and there's adverse pressure on schools not to raise taxes, so this is a way . . . not to put all the burden on taxpayers."
Thirty bucks here, 50 there, can add up, but the fees are relatively low compared with elsewhere in the nation, where some schools charge $500 for sports and even more for bus transportation.
Locally, experts say fees will climb as schools grapple with state legislation, known as the Act 1 Index, that caps property-tax increases.
That was Marple Newtown's predicament last year, after approval of a $68 million bond issue to renovate the 50-year-old high school. Faced with a $1.6 million deficit, the district eliminated foreign-language classes and intramural sports. When that wasn't enough, it tapped parents.
The alternative was to eliminate some of the less popular sports, Superintendent Merle Horowitz said, adding that fees are capped at $150 per family.
Some parents are feeling tapped out.
"If your kid plays several sports, and you have to pay the booster fees and activity fee and you buy the jerseys and cleats, you could end up spending $800 or $900 a year," said Mariann DeMaria, president of Marple's football booster club.
Parents thought they were already doing their part by supporting booster clubs.
"This is a public school system," DeMaria said. "There's absolutely no reason why they are charging my kid to play a sport."
While it obviously costs more to run the football team, with its squad of coaches, uniforms, and equipment, than the debate club, nearly every activity has a teacher sponsor. The activity fees go toward those expenses, Horowitz said.
In Oxford, where the $35 fee is far less than the cost of being on community teams, parents feel "it's not such a bad deal," PTO president Charice Russell said.
Nearly every district in Chester County is considering some type of fee to help pay for extracurriculars without passing on the costs to taxpayers, said Joe O'Brien, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit.
"More and more people feel it's become a necessity," he said. "It's gotten that much worse. All we talk about is, we've got to cut costs."
Haddonfield's $100 activity fee has been around at least seven years and generates about $60,000 for sports and extracurriculars, such as the recently added Odyssey of the Mind program at the middle school. "We do ask parents to stand up," Superintendent Alan Fegley said, noting the district's already high tax burden.
But other districts say the fees are problematic. There's a chance that poor children will drop out of activities even if the district waives fees for the needy, as virtually all do. Moreover, collections are an administrative nightmare and, in the end, do not generate significant revenue.
Bristol abandoned its $35 sports fee in 2003 for all those reasons, athletic director George Collins said.
"It was a pain in the neck," he said.
The district collected less than $10,000 and lost participants who didn't want to ask their parents for another check.
"I don't even know what the honest-to-goodness purpose of it was," Collins said.
Still, Bensalem, which dropped its $35 fee in 2005, is considering enacting it again to pump up the next school year's budget.
"We want to make sure we're continuing to service our students as we always have. That's our No. 1 priority," said Susan Phy, district spokeswoman.