There's no such thing as a free lunch ... or a free graduation ceremony.

The pomp and circumstance of high school graduation comes with a steep price tag. And as budgets continue to shrink, schools are increasingly relying on parents, students and booster groups to foot the bill for graduation.

"We're trying to maintain a classy graduation so that students from one year to the next still have a similar level of service that's respectable and befitting of a school of our stature," Foothill High School Principal John Dwyer said.

The school is asking senior parents to donate $40 per family to cover the $22,000 cost of putting on the elaborate graduation ceremony for more than 540 seniors.

"We can't insist that parents make a payment or a fee," Dwyer said. "We have to be really clear that regardless of whatever donation parents choose to make, their son or daughter will graduate. We need to make sure we stick with our system that people who are not able to donate don't feel targeted."

The state's depressed economy has left school districts reeling from multiple years of budget cuts. Programs that were once funded by districts or schools are now falling squarely on the shoulders of parents.

"I blame the state of California, frankly, because of the fiscal mismanagement that led all of the schools to not get the money they deserve," Dublin High School senior parent Patricia Wilcox said. "I can't blame it on the schools. They either cut back or they ask parents to help."


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Dublin High's graduation ceremony, which can cost as much as $15,000, is covered by the district. But for the past three years, the school has asked parents to donate $30 per family to supplement ever-growing expenses. Donations cover items that make the event special, such as fresh flowers, colorful bunting and the traditional bagpipe player.

"I understand that times are tough," Wilcox said. "I would rather put in a little bit of money and have a nice graduation instead of cheaping out. I'd rather the money goes toward education, so I don't mind."

Wilcox admitted that not everyone is as eager to fork over a few bucks for the graduation ceremony.

"There's definitely some grumbling," she said. "It's not something that's universally known. I was surprised when I got the letter two years ago (when my daughter graduated). There's some grumbling about how much senior year costs, but I would say most people pay something."

Livermore's two high schools rely on each graduating class to fund its own graduation ceremony. Students are told as incoming freshmen that they have four years to raise the money.

"The senior class each year does fundraising through the course of four years," Granada High School vice principal Pat Avilla said. "The biggest fundraiser for the senior class is the homecoming dance. A large portion of what they make on the homecoming dance covers the cost of the graduation ceremony."

Granada's graduation ceremony, held at the high school, costs no more than $9,000, Avilla estimated. The school keeps costs relatively low because years ago, it forked over big bucks to buy a stage and hundreds of folding chairs, which can easily cost $10,000 to rent.

"We run everything here on a shoestring," Avilla said.

This is the first year Foothill has asked parents for donations to cover graduation expenses. The district used to chip in $10,000 per high school to help cover graduation costs. That came to a screeching halt two years ago because of budget cuts.

Last year, Foothill relied on fundraisers and the school's booster group to pay for graduation. This year, the well has run dry.

"I will do whatever it takes to help the schools in this time of need," Foothill senior parent Martha Brown said. "I've been sitting in on all of the senior planning, so I kind of knew this was coming. People said, 'Hey, heads up. We might have to pay for tickets.' It's all coming to this. It's very unfortunate."

Not all parents are eager to dig deep for yet another donation.

"My frustration continues to be that it seems like every time I turn around at that school, I am being nickeled and dimed at that school," senior parent Dawn Abbey said. "There is nothing on that campus that seems to be included (in what I've already paid)."

If Foothill doesn't raise the $22,000 it needs for graduation, the school may have to stage a less-elaborate ceremony or charge for extra tickets, which are now given to students at no charge, Dwyer said.

"Because we're in this really volatile landscape in terms of funding from the state and district, we have to make adjustments from one season to the next," Dwyer said. "It really depends upon how much parents are willing to donate."

Across town at Amador Valley High School, the school booster group has fundraisers throughout the year to pay for that school's $26,000 graduation ceremony, Principal Jim Hansen said.

"We're just lucky that we have parents who are so generous," Hansen said. "It's difficult across the board because we're trying to run the same programs with much less money. We're trying to maintain a quality graduation with really no money (from the district)."

Wilcox, whose son graduates from Dublin High in June, considers the donation request the price of being a senior parent.

"Senior year is big," she said. "Personally, I see it as one more expense that I have to put forth for senior year. I am fortunate to be in a position where I can pay it. I'm not going to be one of those people who writes a check for $100, but there are people like that."

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