Back to school: Your donation is voluntary

One of the most important lessons in public school education is that in California, all students have a “free school guarantee” – meaning no students can be charged a fee to participate in educational activities. The San Dieguito Union School District (SDUHSD) is hoping to hammer that fact home, holding informational meetings with its district attorney to educate administrators, athletic directors, booster parents, foundation and middle school PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) members.

SDUHSD Superintendent Eric Dill said the meetings are an effort to get everyone in the district on the same page regarding donations so that the language that goes out to parents is always clear and consistent.

At a meeting held at Torrey Pines High School Aug. 24, attorney Jordan Bilbeisi, of Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, said while the law can be “murky” on some issues, one thing is clear: “If it’s needed to participate in an educational activity, you can’t charge for it.”

Bilbeisi offered parents and staff suggestions on best practices and language to avoid in the ask for donations for school programs.

Over the last school year, the district faced questions regarding school site fundraising, the role of the foundations and was forced to investigate allegations of “pay to play.” Another recent complaint was filed against the La Costa Canyon High School cheerleading team, regarding the “large financial obligation” each member of the squad would be responsible for.

Parent Beth Westburg also recently questioned the district board about Canyon Crest Academy Foundation’s “Guide to Suggested Donations,” which asked parents to consider a $180 donation to help fund the school’s academic needs this school year along with listed suggested donations for specific programs such as robotics to dance.

“A reasonable person would conclude from this flyer that one must pay to participate,” wrote Westburg.

Bilbeisi said that in many cases there is a quick fix — such as using the word “voluntary” for donations instead of “suggested.” Donation requests should avoid using the word “fee,” he said, also suggesting that groups avoid presenting parents with anything that looks like a bill or invoice and instead encouraging voluntary participation in fundraising.

Bilbeisi said fundraising always needs a disclaimer: “This is not required for your student to participate in this activity.”

Bilbeisi said in their request for donations, groups can state the consequences if a person does not donate to a team or program but he tends to discourage that — “Nothing prohibits it by law but I don’t think it’s a best practice,” Bilbeisi said.

Last season, Dill said the district investigation found an email that did cross that line — an email from the Torrey Pines volleyball team requesting funds for transportation stated “If you don’t pay the fee you can’t ride the bus. The foundation has asked that everyone get the bus fee in ASAP, or your son may not be allowed to ride the bus to and from games. If they do not ride the bus, they cannot play.”

In that case, Dill said the district is offering refunds to those who felt the fee was mandatory.

“The district has to be transparent to the public to keep and retain their trust,” said SDUHSD board member Mo Muir, who attended the Aug. 24 meeting. "The district is responding to foundation inquiries by being transparent and having training workshops on fundraising to make sure every aspect of our district from foundation leadership, coaches, staff and PTAs are all aware of the laws and follow them.”

To further discuss the issue, the SDUHSD board’s Sept. 14 meeting will have an item on the agenda regarding foundations and donations.

Bilbeisi’s presentation offered an overview of pupil fees, charging a fee to a student as a condition for participation in a class or extracurricular activity.

An ACLU investigation in 2010 revealed that school districts across the state were illegally charging students for extracurricular activities and for textbooks and materials. Dill said before 2004, SDUHSD was doing a lot of those things and they did a thorough job with reviewing and correcting the district’s curricular piece.

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) filed suit against California to stop illegal practices and protect equal access to education and in response to the ACLU suit, Assembly Bill 1575 was passed in 2012.

Bilbeisi said the bill essentially codified what was already the law regarding fees, although the law is still largely undeveloped and uncertain — it states no student is required to pay for “participation in an educational activity,” which essentially everything falls under.

The law states schools can’t require students to make payments to obtain a lock, locker, book, class apparatus, musical instrument, uniform or “other materials or equipment.” A fee waiver policy shall not make a pupil fee permissible.

Schools cannot require students to make a purchase needed for an educational activity (such as a supplemental textbook or supplies) and all supplies and equipment needed to participate in a school activity must be provided free of charge.

Athletic directors at the meeting wondered how far does it go: Would they have to provide track spikes? Field hockey sticks? Socks? Would the district be liable for a school-provided football helmet in the case of an injury?

Bilbeisi said the law is “murky” but the district does need to provide all supplies free of charge. The intent is to not create a “two-tier” educational system by offering a higher educational experience for students with better means.

One cheer parent said that can be difficult as these programs do cost money — in the cheer team’s case, it costs about $1,500 per member, if 10 kids chose not to donate, who gets the bill? Dill said the district would be required to cover that cost.

SDUHSD board member John Salazar said he has been bothered by the perception that students don’t go out for certain sports because they cannot afford it. He would like to see posters on every campus that read: “Come out for sports, it’s free, we don’t want your money.”

Some booster parents said that culture already exists, that parents do understand what it costs to run the program and are happy to contribute if they can.

One Canyon Crest Academy parent said the soccer team has a “suggested” $500 donation but she said she knew families who said their children played for four years and they never donated a dime.

Another thing the law gives parents is the option to use the Williams Uniform Complaint process to apply for reimbursement for previously charged fees. The district is required to provide a 60-day turnaround for any complaint and complete an investigation — the parent can also appeal to the California Department of Education.

The law does not prohibit soliciting voluntary donations but it does prohibit course credit or privileges in exchange for donations.

“Recognition is OK as long as they are not getting specific privileges,” Bilbeisi said.

Dill said they have seen some fundraising tactics regarding recognition that are not best practice — such as a list of names with those who have yet to donate. And despite the allegations of “pay for play,” Dill reiterated that athletic coaches do not receive a list of who has and has not donated, nor do they want to.

Some boosters in attendance said that it is important for them to be able to recognize those parents who have given above and beyond so that all kids can participate.

“We have great parents that support the schools,” Muir said. “We so appreciate their time and monetary contributions. We can never thank them enough.”

Copyright © 2018, Del Mar Times
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