SALT LAKE CITY — In the wake of two audits critical of Utah schools' handling of secondary school fees, members of a legislative committee on Tuesday raised the possibility of eliminating the instructional fees paid by families by raising educational funding statewide.
After hearing a presentation of a recent legislative audit that found "widespread violations of state law" by the Utah State School Board, local boards of education, high schools and charter schools in their handling of secondary school fees, some lawmakers broached eliminating instructional fees or developing sliding scales so students who don't qualify for waivers aren't priced out of extra curricular activities or coursework.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, noted that a recent audit conducted for the State Board of Education stated Utah public schools reported collecting $71 million in school fees in 2017.
When compared to the $4 billion state lawmakers appropriated to public education during the 2018 General Session, "at $71 million, I wonder if we should look at doing away with them because it's become such an inequity among districts."
He noted $71 million is less than 2 percent of funds appropriated by state lawmakers, although both legislative and State School Board auditors believe the figure is "significantly understated."
"I wonder if we should rethink having fees in the first place," said Stephenson, who is not seeking re-election after serving in the Utah Legislature since 1993.
Responding to the legislative audit, state education officials said work is underway on several fronts to address the issue of school fees. Deputy State Superintendent of Policy Angie Stallings said a school fees task force has been meeting since June to develop recommendations on changes to State School Board rules on school fees.
The task force will report its recommendations to the State School Board in December, she said.
Lawmakers asked Stallings if there might also be a role for the Utah Legislature in amending state statutes or developing new policy to improve compliance to existing law.
Currently, 95 percent of Utah schools are "out of compliance in one aspect or another" of school board policy or practice on school fees, she said.
Stephenson's proposal appeared to resonate with some state lawmakers, among them Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, who asked Stallings if the State School Board would be looking to the Legislature for guidance, such as better defining instructional fees verses extracurricular fees. He acknowledged the definition of extracurricular would be hotly debated but said instructional fees "probably should be funded at a state level."
"I don't want to speak for our school district and charter school colleagues if the Legislature wanted to completely fund all the fees for our academic courses, I'm sure they would welcome that," Stallings said.
The legislative audit, made public in September, found that the State School Board has not fulfilled its constitutional role to supervise and control secondary school fees.
The board's internal audit released in April found Utah public schools' failure to comply with school fee and fee waiver policies has resulted in an "unreasonable system of fees, which jeopardizes equal opportunity for all students … based on their ability to pay."
Scott Jones, deputy state superintendent of operations, assured lawmakers that the State School Board is "owning" the issues raised by the two audits and will seek to improve compliance with state law, changing policies if necessary, training schools on their responsibilities and monitoring their compliance.
"We got this," Jones told the committee. "We're going to take are of this. Compliance and accountability are always our cornerstone."