Education Matters: Pay to play? The debate over ‘donation’ vs. ‘fee’


Where to begin? So much is happening in the San Dieguito Union High School District that it’s hard to know where to start.

Perhaps the best place to start is with my personal pet peeve: charging fees to students who are supposed to receive a free public education. Free public education also includes access to athletics, music, theater and other extracurricular activities.

So when I saw the news release in our paper in the May 21 issue, headlined “CCA offers two options for district physicals,” I zeroed in.

The two options, as it read, were for prospective Canyon Crest Academy athletes to come either June 3 or June 9 and pay $25 to receive a sports physical (the exam is deemed mandatory, according to California Interscholastic Federation rules).

Besides the misleading implication that the only two options for student athletes were to come one of the two nights (when a physical by a student’s primary care physician was also an option), the bigger problem is that the $25 was called a “charge,” not a contribution or voluntary donation.

The two sports physical evenings were sponsored by CCA’s foundation, which uses these nights as fundraisers, with the money supporting CCA’s athletic program.

Despite good intentions, the phrasing is important. And when districts don’t get it right, they need to set the record straight. And they need to make sure parents who felt misled are given the chance for a refund.

What’s aggravating about this is that it’s clearly illegal to charge students for clay or paint when they take art, or uniforms for band, or costumes for theater. How is this different?

The district says students must have a physical to play sports, according to CIF rules. But even if families understand that there is the third option to get the physical from their own private physician, the exams still cost money.

SDUHSD Superintendent Rick Schmitt apologized for the wording, saying the approved press release labeled the $25 a “voluntary donation,” but somehow — somehow? — it got changed to read “$25 charge.”

CCA Principal Karl Mueller said the correct version of the press release — the one that said “requested donation” — was sent to all CCA families in an eblast. He also said the correct version was sent to our paper by a CCA Foundation parent liaison.

It’s true that our office received the correct version on May 16. But two days later, the parent liaison sent a revised version of the press release, writing, “There was a mistake in the article I sent you. It is a $25 charge, not a requested donation. Is it possible to publish this updated version instead?”

Mueller said he did not know how the wording got changed. Even so, despite the approved version stating the $25 was a voluntary donation, Mueller insisted that the revised version was legal.

“A foundation can have a fee for a service,” Mueller said.

So the district’s approved version called it a voluntary donation, but labeling it a fee is no problem?

Confused by what appeared to be a bit of backpedaling (“We made a mistake but it’s still OK”), I contacted the district office for clarification.

Rick Ayala, SDUHSD’s director of pupil services and alternative programs, said it’s not illegal to charge a fee, but the district prefers to call it a donation.

“Legally they’re entitled to charge a fee for a service, even though we want them to use the word ‘donation,’” said Ayala, who oversees the district’s athletic programs.

“It’s clear that the second press release that followed Karl’s was submitted without his knowledge,” Ayala said. “There was no intent to do anything wrong. It was a case of lack of communication.”

If Mueller didn’t change the wording, then who?

“We’re still looking into it,” Mueller told me last week.

“We still don’t know,” Ayala said this week.

It wasn’t that difficult to figure out.

I asked Joanne Couvrette, the executive director of the CCA Foundation, directly — because who else could it have been?

“I requested that the language in the press release be clarified from a ‘suggested donation’ to the $25 price,” Couvrette confirmed in an email.

“We offer this service as one of the options available to students to comply with the CIF rule requiring a physical as a condition of participating in interscholastic sports,” she added.

Couvrette said the $25 is not tax-deductible, because the fair-market value for this service ranges from $50 to $175, which exceeds the foundation’s $25 fee.

Because of this, “the IRS will not allow the $25 to be treated as a tax-deductible donation,” she said.

So was the district wrong to call it a donation? Or was it wrong to call it a fee?

Can’t force a kid to pay

Although the district’s position is that foundations can charge a fee for sports physicals (even though it shouldn’t be called a fee), Sally Smith vehemently disagrees.

Smith, a San Diego activist, attorney and champion of student rights, has filed numerous complaints with the California Department of Education over illegal fees charged to public school students, and has become known throughout the state for her vigorous defense of the rights of low-income students in particular.

“The law provides that a district may require a sports physical,” Smith said in a recent email. “However, if a school district decides to make something mandatory, such as a sports physical or P.E. uniforms …, then the district must provide free of charge. That’s the law.”

But here’s the catch: CIF requires medical exams for all high school athletes.

“The CIF rule is what districts have said justifies mandatory physicals,” Smith said. “But CIF cannot make rules that are contrary to law. CIF does not supersede the law.”

San Dieguito’s position is that requiring physicals is legal as long as schools don’t require students to purchase the exams from them. If students can get their physicals from their own medical doctors, then the district is in the clear.

So far the law seems to side with the district. But Smith is not giving up, because there is ambiguity in the wording.

Why does all this matter? Because low-income students deserve access to all that public education has to offer, and students should never be placed in a position of non-participation due to lack of money. Neither can it be required of them to self-identify as poor.

“The district’s stance is we’re not going to turn kids away,” Ayala said. “We can’t force a kid to pay.”

He said when students express concern about costs, the schools work with them and don’t require proof of financial need.

Ayala said he didn’t know what specific instructions volunteers were given if any student at the sports physical evenings said he or she was unable to pay. But the district’s expectation, he said, is that any student who could not afford to pay should be given a physical at no charge.

“That’s always been the arrangement,” he said.

Couvrette said if that had occurred, “we would have provided the service at no charge for that person.”

“Our fundraising event for sports physicals is very popular with parents,” she said. Both nights were fully booked, “because the price is very low, it is very convenient and it is an easy option.”

But she stressed it was not the only option.

She said parents are free to obtain the physical through their own physician — even though this fact was buried in the announcement that was distributed.

The communication breakdown is worrisome. Foundations cannot be permitted to distribute information to the press and public without some oversight by the district. But this can get murky.

On the one hand, foundations need to maintain some degree of autonomy. There needs to be a clear demarcation between the district and the foundation. A too-cozy relationship spells trouble. This is where the Del Mar Union School District got into trouble in the early years of its foundation.

On the other hand, oversight on communication that goes out to the public from school foundations is necessary, to ensure the law and district policies are being followed.

Ayala said he would address the issue with all the principals — and presumably with foundation directors as well.

Said Supt. Schmitt, “Our position is unchanged about the legality of foundations using a fee for service. That said, I’m disappointed with the inconsistency with the way we phrased it. We will get it right in the future.”

Marsha Sutton can be reached at