Illegal fees collected for cap-and-gown; refunds owed

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton

Parents who paid for caps and gowns for their graduating high school seniors this year are owed a full refund, the San Dieguito Union High School District has determined.

Because the district did not make it clear that caps and gowns could be provided at no charge, SDUHSD is now forced to offer refunds to anyone who purchased the attire and does not wish to keep it.

All orders for caps and gowns were processed through each school’s Associated Student Body, and the ASBs contracted with a third-party vendor. Jostens was used for Canyon Crest Academy and Torrey Pines High School. San Dieguito Academy and La Costa Canyon High School in the north used San Diego Graduate Supply.

Costs varied from school to school and increased in price as ordering deadlines passed.  Charges ranged from $40 to $56, with delivery fees as high as $10.

At $50 per purchase for an average graduating class of 500, the total required to reimburse families for illegally charged fees could reach as high as $25,000 per high school.

What’s galling is that ordering graduation regalia in bulk can cost as little as $12.95 per unit (gradshop.com). Now the district – meaning taxpayers – must pay three to four times that amount to reimburse families for their purchases.

All this could have been avoided had the district followed a new law which was clearly communicated last fall.

In a memo distributed to all school districts on Oct. 4, 2013, Jeannie Oropeza, a deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Calif. Dept. of Education, cited the Sands v. Morongo Unified School District case wherein “the California Supreme Court found that the high school graduation ceremony is ‘an integral part of the educational process’…”

Because the graduation ceremony is an “educational activity,” a pupil fee for caps and gowns cannot be charged, Oropeza concluded in her memo.

The legislative advocacy group School Services of California weighed in on the issue with an update to school districts on May 16, 2014, writing that the law “clarifies that school districts may not require students to purchase a cap and gown as a condition of participating in the graduation ceremony.”

Sally Smith, education activist and crusader for equal access in public education, said in an email, “Districts had plenty of notice from CDE to provide caps and gowns but ignored CDE. It will be an expensive lesson but districts were forewarned.”

Smith said it is irrelevant that third-party vendors were used, since the district directed students to one particular vendor.

“The district picked the c/g, not the students,” she wrote. “The district could have contracted to buy in bulk but failed to do so when it was notified by CDE in October.”

San Dieguito is liable for reimbursement because it was legally responsible for providing caps and gowns, she said, adding that the district must make a good-faith effort to contact all individuals who paid the illegal fees and send them refunds.

A May 5, 2014 story in the Sacramento Bee stated that, “for the first time, the state has called on school districts to provide graduation attire at no cost to students or their families if required during the diploma ceremony.”

The story referenced Sally Smith and quoted her as saying she’s filed more than 200 complaints against California school districts for collection of illegal fees.

Smith, an attorney now focused on education law, filed a Uniform Complaint against the SDUHSD on May 2, objecting to several practices of the district’s, one of which was fees collected for cap-and-gown attire. She supported her claim with ample evidence, much of which could be found on school websites.

Smith cited a Torrey Pines High School memo to students that offered two options for purchase of cap-and-gown, with “Best Value!” highlighted.

In the Canyon Crest Academy principal’s April 2014 letter to the senior class, this bullet was provided: “Get your cap and gown orders in! Packets are available in the finance office or front office!”

A May 2, 2014 CCA daily bulletin posted this to seniors: “Today is the last day to preorder graduation caps and gowns from Jostens. Perfect sizing and fit cannot be guaranteed if you miss the deadline and decide to purchase in person at graduation rehearsal.”

At San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas, an email received by parents of graduating seniors was sent from vendor San Diego Graduate Supply, with the headline: “San Dieguito seniors, the time to order your graduation items is here.”

An order deadline of Dec. 15 is provided, with a notice that the price for cap-and-gown will increase $10 after that date.

Even more egregious are the notices that low-income students must self-identify as poor to qualify for a free cap-and-gown.

The May 2 CCA notice concludes with this sentence: “If you would like to request financial assistance, please contact the assistant principal…”

An SDA announcement stated, “If you need financial assistance ordering your cap and gown, information is available in the counseling office.”

CDE’s Oropeza, in her 2013 memo to school districts, noted that “no student should be required to self-identify as indigent in order to receive a cap and gown from the district.”

Improper charges

In initial discussions with Eric Dill, SDUHSD’s associate superintendent of business services, he said the district was reviewing how “the messaging” went out but agreed that the district needed to provide the cap-and-gown set to any student who wanted to borrow one, regardless of income or proof of hardship or need.

“All kids have to say is, I want one,” he said. “They don’t have to justify it.”

Dill said it was likely that people “probably did purchase who might not have wanted to.”

The district, he said, now has “a duty to go out and notify people that we made this improper charge, and then make it right.”

San Dieguito’s formal response to Smith’s Uniform Complaint came on May 30. In it, Dill wrote that caps and gowns “are available to students who do not wish to purchase them, for any reason. Students must alert the school of their desire to borrow a cap and gown, but need not provide a reason.”

Even though he claimed San Dieguito is in compliance with the law, the letter admitted a lapse by the district, stating, “The initial communications to students regarding caps and gowns may not have complied with the proper procedures for ensuring that all students were aware that caps and gowns were available to them,” at no cost.

Furthermore, “Initial communications required students to speak to an administrator if they needed financial assistance,” he wrote, acknowledging this was wrong. “The district has since recognized that these procedures are improper.”

“The district is also currently evaluating methods of ensuring that any student who believed they were required to purchase a cap and gown in order to graduate, but did not wish to, are refunded,” the response stated.

Even though the cap-and-gown sales are not run through the district’s main purchasing department, the refund money will come from the district’s general fund, Dill said.

He said each school’s ASB sets its own contract with third-party cap-and-gown vendors, and ASB will be allowed to keep the money.

“I wouldn’t want to take it out of ASB funds,” he said. “Since the court case essentially said that graduation is an instructional-related activity, then I think it follows that the district’s general fund should cover that and not student-activity funds.”

The final step after notifying families of the error was implementing a workable system to exchange the caps and gowns for a refund. The district had to scramble to put a plan in place.

By now, all families with graduating seniors should have received emails informing them that they may return the graduation attire on Monday and Tuesday, June 16 and 17, for a full refund, as long as the sets are not damaged or personalized.

A more convenient day and time would have been directly after graduation ceremonies on June 13, but Dill said administrators felt that would be too chaotic.

Dill said the cap-and-gown set must be returned as a unit; no partials will be accepted.

But he was unsure what to do about the differing amounts people paid and advised everyone to save receipts to attach to their forms when the attire is returned to the schools.

Every school has an inventory that has always been sufficient in the past, he said. But with the new law, the district will need more cap-and-gown sets to accommodate those families who don’t wish to buy their own.

He said exchanging the caps and gowns for money this year will be a “back-door way of increasing our inventory.”

This seems a nice way of saying being caught charging illegal fees will work out for the best.

But it’s inexcusable that taxpayer money approaching $100,000 will need to be expended, when the cost to the district should have been one-quarter that amount.

There’s no conflict here – it’s not like some major decision had to be adjudicated.

Sally Smith challenged the district to follow the law and make amends for illegal fees, and the district agreed. The law was clear, plenty of notice was given, and the district is at fault. And now we all have to pay.

Marsha Sutton can be contacted at SuttComm@san.rr.com.

   
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