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School fees audit ordered amid reports of shaming, billing low-income kids

FILE - Students leave Mount Logan Middle School in Logan on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
FILE - Students leave Mount Logan Middle School in Logan on Wednesday, March 29, 2017.
Nicole Boliaux, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Amid reports of bills being sent to children who have school fee waivers, even the shaming of children on fee waivers, the State School Board has authorized an audit of school fees statewide.

The audit will be conducted by the Utah State Board of Education's independent auditors and focus on educational "equity and access issues," as well as review how fees are established and waiver procedures. The audit will not address the dollar amount of the fees, which are set by local boards of education.

School fees are not assessed in public elementary schools up to grade six. However, if a sixth grade is part of a middle school, fees can be assessed. Fees can be assessed in grades seven through 12.

Fee waiver eligibility is based on income. If a household qualifies, fees can be waived for school registration, textbooks, textbook and equipment deposits, school supplies, activity cards, extracurricular activities and school lockers; lab and shop fees; gym and towel fees; costs for uniforms and accessories; field trips and assembly fees; costs for class or team trips; and costs of musical instruments used in school classes or activities, according to the State School Board's website.

Christelle Estrada, educational specialist for Title III programs that serve English learners, immigrants and refugees, said there have been a number of instances of children whose families qualify for fee waivers being sent bills.

"One of the reasons this came up was I was at Catholic social services and they showed me an invoice given to a refugee family that had a list of fees. An example would be like parent-teacher conference, IT, shop, whatever. So I provided those invoices to Debbie Davis because it seems to be a pattern. It’s not just like one LEA or like one school," she said.

Davis is the internal audit director for the State School Board, said the audit office hotline has also received a number of complaints that schools are not allowing waivers for certain school services or programs, such as summer school or credit recovery.

"This is a consensus area of high risk. We're seeing it in auditing, from the hotline. We're kind of seeing it from all angles," she said.

There have been instances when children who qualify for fees are singled out by educators or other school employees to rationalize fee levels — telling paying students that they are subsidizing students who are unable to pay.

Some middle-income students shy away from activities because the fees are too high. One school was assessing fees for students who ran for student body offices and they were also required to purchase sweaters.

State School Board member Linda Hansen shared her son's experience as an example of the frustration many parents experience.

"You’d go in and you’d check his grades and he’d have a zero on his assignment because he hadn’t paid his fees yet, so it was affecting his grade," she said.

Board member Carol Lear, who before being elected to the school board was a school law specialist in the state office of education, said challenges with school fees go back decades.

"We have this tension that never goes away," she said.

A ceramics teacher, for instance, wonders, "How do I run a ceramics program if I have no money?"

"So we are essentially having kids come to school to pay to have their education. Until we have more money, this tension is going to exist," she said.

Davis said the goal of the audit is to come up with better policy statewide.

While Lear said she agrees with the principle behind the audit and crafting policy, historically, no one has been willing to enforce it.

Deputy Superintendent Angie Stallings said she hopes the audit findings will also result in a better means for the office of the Utah State Board of Education to monitor schools fees and waiver practices.

All schools submit their fee schedules to state education officials annually but they are not compared with one another. One option might be to have schools submit their fee schedule and policies once every five years so that education officials can review a smaller number each year to look for anomalies, she said.

Estrada said from her point of view, "The question goes back to what’s a free, appropriate public education?

“How does access to opportunity fit with the board’s priorities around educational equity?"