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Extra private-school costs need to be spelled out for parents

Jeff Paiken with his wife Andrea Tkaczyk, left, and daughters, from left, Alexa, 14, Sasha, 12, and Natasha, 16, at Hillfield Strathallan College in Hamilton, Ont.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

Jeff Paikin knows all about the financial commitment of sending children to an independent school, and that the costs may not stop at tuition. He pays more than $67,000 total annually for his three daughters to attend his alma mater, Hillfield Strathallan College in Hamilton.

The school, which was founded in 1901 and educates children from about age 3 through high school, was the only one Mr. Paikin attended before university. The Burlington, Ont., resident's daughters – Natasha, 16, Alexa, 14, and Sasha, 12 – have been at the co-educational day school from the outset of their formal education.

In addition to tuition – about $4,700 for the young Montessori students to $22,568 for the oldest, with busing included – Mr. Paikin and other parents must buy uniforms (kilt, shirt and blazer), which run about $200. They also pay school expansion fund fees ($400 to $800 per student for the first two family members), and each senior student must have a computer or smartphone.

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Supplemental costs include trips, the yearbook, photos and sundry items that crop up throughout the year.

Not that parents at any school don't face the pressures of paying for activities and items they didn't anticipate. But when forking over five-figure fees for tuition alone, added costs can make the bills seem never-ending.

As president of New Horizon Development Group Inc., a condominium and home builder and developer, Mr. Paikin's income rides with economic conditions, something that can play on any parent's budget.

"It's not always been easy," Mr. Paikin said when asked about his daughters' education expenses. "The challenge is I don't make the same amount of money every year; I'm subject to the economy."

Mr. Paikin has served on the school's financial assistance committee and is chair of the board of Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, a national network of more than 90 schools in Canada and abroad. As knowledgeable as he is about what it takes to run an independent school, he is sometimes left scratching his head when it comes to certain costs.

"I will see a bill on an invoice for a notebook, for instance, and initially you think, 'Really, can't I have a notebook [free]?' but then I realize, 'Why should other parents pay for my kid's notebook?'

"But I appreciate the fact that as a parent I'm also a school customer. ... I expect customer service, and we get that at Hillfield in spades."

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Some so-called voluntary costs are hard for a parent to say "no" to. They include the $4,400 for the Grade 8 graduation trip to France that Mr. Paikin will pay for his youngest daughter – an experience also enjoyed by his two eldest daughters.

"Sasha's talking about it already," he says, adding that when it comes to trips, which he considers a part of their educational experience, "if I can afford it, they're going."

Canadian Accredited Independent Schools, which accredits schools that meet national standards, lists the 10 most important questions that parents should pose while doing research. "What will I be expected to pay, beyond tuition?" is among the Top 5.

Schools have made more of an effort to be upfront about costs, and it's common for them to require that parents give written consent before anything is added to their accounts, say Mr. Paikin and Paul Kitchen, head of Rothesay Netherwood School, a co-educational boarding and day school founded in 1877 near Saint John, N.B.

"I've been head of the school for 25 years, and I do know nothing upsets parents more than hidden costs," says Mr. Kitchen. "Schools have to be really transparent … and most schools have all their costs laid out on their website, including the extras."

For instance, the website for Rothesay Netherwood, which has about 275 students from grades 6 to 12, lists day-school tuition, boarding fees, of $18,580 for each student from grades 6 to 8 and $19,850 for grades 9 to 12. Boarding fees including tuition for each Canadian student are $32,840, and more for U.S., Caribbean and international students. As with other schools, tuition discounts apply if more than one student from the family attends. Rothesay Netherwood's website also breaks down and what tuition covers, including the academic program, textbooks, the yearbook, use of recreational facilities, lunch every day and dinners when necessary for day students, and all meals for boarders. It also covers health care needs, regular travel for athletic and academic school trips and most Outward Bound Canada trips. Extra fees apply to optional trips, novels and workbooks, and each student must purchase a laptop from the school that comes with a warranty for free repairs.

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Good communication between schools and parents can go a long way in preventing any surprises, says Mr. Kitchen.

Mr. Paikin says Hillfield Strathallan also offers alumni involvement, private donor gifts, fund-raising and other initiatives that can provide financial cushions.

For instance, schools requiring that students wear uniforms tend to have sales on second-hand garments. Scholarships and special bursaries help cover costs for families with undue hardships, such as loss of a job or health problems.

Mr. Paikin advises parents to shop for an independent school the same way they would for any big-ticket item.

"If you're going to buy a car, you would do some research and you would ask questions," says Mr. Paikin. "When looking at schools, make it be a good customer experience … ask about all the costs that may be involved."

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