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Unaffordable Utah: Should Public Schools Charge Students $71 Million in Fees?

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – In Utah, heading back to school doesn’t just include buying new shoes and backpacks. It also means parents forking over hundreds of dollars in fees to register their children at public schools.

“We suddenly had all these fees to send our children to public education,” said Kaysville resident Nettie Francis. “They’re passing the buck off to the families.”

When Francis moved to Utah from Wyoming six years ago, she was surprised to learn she would have to write out a $400 check to enroll three of her children in middle and high schools.

“I said, ‘Well isn’t this a public school?’ And they said, ‘Yes, but we have school fees here in Utah,’” the mother of 10 recalls.

She was even more surprised at how much it would cost to participate in extracurricular activities.

“Those fees were astronomical; they seemed out of control” Francis said. “One of our children wanted to be in marching band and that was going to be around $2,000.”

Increasing Fees

Concerns over Utah public schools collecting tens of millions of dollars in fees have prompted two audits to scrutinize the practice that some say creates a pay-to-learn environment.

The first audit, released in April, was completed by the Utah State Board of Education’s internal auditors. It found that schools collected approximately $71 million in fees last year — a 29 percent increase since 2012. That averages out to $250 per student.

During that same five-year timeframe, the total number of fees also increased 18 percent. There are now about 2,600 different fees charged by schools. Statewide averages range from $79 for band class to $294 for cheer, $84 for drama to $296 for drill, $42 for a field trip to $112 for an internet connection.

“The fees that students pay themselves go to pay for their participation in that program,” said Ben Horsley, spokesperson for the Granite School District. “So without the fees, there is no program.”

The fees should be thought of as user fees, Horsley said, since many of them are for optional activities. The more activities a student is involved in, the more they’ll pay.

“You might be saddled with a $600 travel bill to California to participate in some sort of competition,” he explained.

MORE: Unaffordable Utah

Students who can’t afford to pay can get a fee waiver.

“Your general school registration fees can be waived,” Horsley said. “We’re not going to waive a yearbook — that’s not a necessary expense to participate in the public education program.”

Problems Identified

Besides crunching the numbers, the school board’s audit also found a long list of concerns about the fee system, including students being treated differently if they are getting fees waived, violations of privacy, a lack of public input and general confusion.

“We believe there is a high level of non-compliance with current school fee and fee waiver policy resulting in an unreasonable system of fees,” the audit states, “which jeopardizes equal opportunity for all students by limiting access to school programs, both curricular and extracurricular, based on a student’s ability to pay.”

In addition, the audit found a gap of almost 29,000 students who qualify for waivers and those actually receiving them.

“Students who may be most in need of the experiences or offerings made available through public schools funded by taxpayers are often discouraged from participating or are completely excluded,” the audit went on to say.

Task Force Created

In response to the audit, the state school board created a task force to look for solutions. The looming question: If fees were to go away, where would the money come from?

“Should we be collecting $70 million of school fees or not? And I think there are pros and cons to both approaches,” said Angie Stallings, the board’s deputy superintendent of policy. “People forget that if we didn’t have school fees, probably what we would have is higher property taxes.”

The task force is also grappling with other big issues raised in the audit, including a lack of compliance with rules set forth in a permanent injunction issued in 1994, as the result of a lawsuit filed against the state.

“One of the things the injunction calls for — which we have never done — is to establish a maximum fee amount per sport or activity or to establish a maximum fee amount per family,” Stallings said.

Non-compliance with the permanent injunction is a liability for the state that could end up costing taxpayers money, says Ogden attorney Kent Winward.

“I think they’ve got some real issues,” he said of the audit’s findings. “Somebody could actually sue and say, ‘Hey, you’re in violation of this court order, we want you held in contempt.’”

Winward says the debate over school fees should be framed as a state constitutional issue.

“They’re nickeling and diming the parents of the kids,” he said. “We have a right as parents to have a free education for our students.”

Possible Solutions

The audit also found that 69 percent of secondary schools didn’t provide fee waiver alternatives, even though it’s listed as an option for students.

“No one is even aware of it,” Francis said of the policy allowing students to work or perform community service in lieu of a fee waiver. “There’s a lot of things that kids could be doing in the school.”

Some schools are already doing away with fees, including Roots Charter School in West Valley City where students earn a regular diploma but spend a few hours a week working in the dirt.

“We find that school fees are really a hard thing for a lot of our families,” said Vice Principal Whittney Chilcote. “Sometimes they feel like they have to jump through too many hoops and then they just don’t participate.”

The school’s principal is providing input to that state taskforce — letting them know that no fees is the way to go.

“The ultimate goal would be to have no fees,” Chilcote said, “and just everybody be able to do all the activities and participate in everything.”

Additional Audit

A separate audit of Utah’s school fees system is being conducted by the Office of the Legislative Auditor General. The office says the audit should be released at the end of August or in September, and that it touches on many of the same topics as the completed school board audit.

The school board’s task force will wait to make any recommendations until after members can review the legislative audit.

“These are hard issues that deserve a reexamination,” Stallings said. “I truly believe that our school districts and charter schools don’t want to violate the law.”

As for Francis, she says Utah families have accepted school fees for too long without questioning the practice and is glad the issue is finally being addressed.

“We have great people in Utah. We should be able to find something that will work,” she said. “If it’s public education, let’s fund it publically.”

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