A top Auckland secondary school is asking parents to shell out more than $1,000 when their sons return to class in two weeks' time.
Auckland Grammar is the first state school to crack the four-figure mark for school donations, making it the country's most expensive.
Parents are expected to pay $1,050 for their boys to attend the decile-10 school.
Headmaster Tim O'Connor says the reason is simple: the Government funds only half of the school's annual operating budget and the rest has to come from parents and fundraising.
"We're behind the eight ball to start with and we have to make it up from somewhere."
O'Connor said Grammar got $945 less Government funding for each student than a similar-sized school in the lowest decile. It was not willing to compromise on lower class sizes, specialist assistance and a wide range of subjects.
He said the school relied on the income from the donations.
"If we didn't get the support from the majority of our parents then our budgetary concerns would be great."
Help was available for families who struggled with the increased cost of sending their boys to the school, O'Connor said.
Similarly, high-decile schools are requesting donations ranging from $250 to $625 a year, according to their websites.
Just 15km down the Southern Motorway from Grammar, Otahuhu College principal Neil Watson is determined to keep school donations at $30 a year.
Donations enabled the school to improve opportunities for students, Watson said, but quality staff made the difference.
"Excellent teaching in every classroom for every kid - that's the key. Everything else is window dressing."
Education Minister Hekia Parata is steering clear of any debate, saying the donations are set by boards of trustees who are elected by parents.
"It is my expectation that boards carefully consider their local communities when deciding on an appropriate donation."
Donations made by parents amounted to 1.8 per cent of the funding to schools in 2012.
Figures released this week from the Ministry of Education showed secondary school donations amounted to $40.55 million, though some schools were yet to file annual reports.
Katrina Casey of the ministry said schools would be breaking the law if they tried to enforce payment of donations.
Schools are legally allowed to ask for whatever amount they think appropriate but it's up to parents how much - or little - they paid.
The only instance when state schools can charge a "fee" is when a parent or caregiver agrees to purchase goods or services directly from a school. This might include a field trip, sports or uniform.
Casey said six of 2500 schools had been contacted by the ministry in the last 12 months following complaints.
They had been told to clarify their requests to parents or asked to cease a particular practice.
In the past, schools have withheld year books, refused to sell ball tickets and withdrawn other privileges to students whose parents have not paid the donation.
Last year, Macleans College in Bucklands Beach, East Auckland, was cautioned for adding surcharges of up to $1,200 to graduation dinner tickets, sports, drama and dance activities and even Cambridge exams for students who hadn't paid the $490 school donation.
The Ministry of Education said it would investigate any reports of schools coercing parents to pay the donation or treating non-donation-paying students differently.