Rock Hill schools have returned $23,600, or 17 percent, to families who paid an "academic" fee to enroll students this year.
Parents have until the summer to contact schools and request a refund of the $25 fee.
Schools began accepting requests in late September, after the school board approved Superintendent Lynn Moody's plan to use part of a projected $3.9 million surplus to reinstate schools' supply budgets and refund families the fee money.
"You can't go begging your parents for money because you can't make ends meet, then get some money and not give it back," school board Chairman Bob Norwood said in September.
The decision signaled the end of the district's less-than-successful attempt to make up for budget cuts by charging students to enroll.
At the start of the 2010-2011 school year, Moody cut money sent to schools because of state budget cuts. To make up for it, schools charged the $25 "academic fee." Students with reduced-price meals were asked to pay $12.50. Students who qualified for free lunches paid nothing.
More than half of Rock Hill's 18,000 students receive subsidized meals.
Officials expected the money would make up for what the district cut from schools. It would pay for instructional needs, like workbooks, tutors and software.
From the start, schools had trouble collecting.
Last year, just over half of the expected $257,000 came in.
This school year, schools collected $138,000, or about 63 percent, of the $220,000 schools would have gotten if everyone asked to pay actually did.
"Academic fees have not been as profitable or easy as we hoped," Moody told the school board.
While schools can legally charge "reasonable fees," state law doesn't spell out what districts can do to collect.
Some do nothing.
Fort Mill schools have for years charged families a $25 "instructional fee" to enroll a student. Officials there said usually most of the expected money comes in. They don't bother families who don't pay.
Moody had tried to appeal to parents by saying schools needed their help. Some understood.
"I want to step up to the plate and provide whatever my child needs," said Leslie Hall, who has children in the district. However, Hall said she doesn't think families who can't afford it should be charged.
Others oppose the notion of charging for access to public education.
Jack Reedy, whose daughter is a fourth-grader at York Road Elementary, said returning the money is a good idea.
"When we grew up, you didn't have to pay an academic fee," he said.
Rather than repay everyone who paid, the district is requiring families to request a refund.
"We need to maintain records on who requested a refund and when a check was processed and mailed," district spokeswoman Elaine Baker said.
Families received pre-recorded messages from principals explaining the refunds.
"We have had very few requests," York Road Elementary Principal Patrick Robinson said.
Several parents told him they prefer the school keeps the money.
"It's very gratifying," he said. "We're very grateful to the parents for their support."