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.”

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