EDUCATION MATTERS: Parent fees for public education come under scrutiny

By Marsha Sutton


One woman with a simple mission has made life very complicated for administrators in the San Diego Unified School District. And what she’s stirred up has far-reaching ramifications for all other San Diego County school districts.

A hero to some and a villain to others, Sally Arguilez Smith has challenged San Diego Unified to follow the law and to cease charging parents for curricular and extracurricular materials and activities, including supplies for required courses.

In an interview on the subject, Dan McAllister, San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector, said the issue deserves close attention by the other 41 school districts in the county.

“Other districts must in fact take note of the actions by the largest school district in the county of San Diego, San Diego Unified,” he said.

McAllister chairs the audit and finance committee for SD Unified, which is a public committee formed about six years ago to facilitate good governance, openness and outside scrutiny of the district’s financial patterns.

“Things have gotten more difficult each year — more deficits and inabilities by schools to pay for basic materials,” McAllister said. “So that responsibility has more and more fallen on the shoulders of parents who are already, in many cases, struggling to make ends meet.”

But the state constitution guarantees a free public education, said McAllister, who applauded Smith’s efforts.

Smith has uncovered literally hundreds of violations in schools throughout San Diego Unified and has pursued this issue relentlessly. At her insistence, SDUSD now provides guidelines, posted online two weeks ago, to all principals, teachers and staff members — and to families — about parent fees and what is and is not allowable.

It turns out that, with few exceptions, nothing is permitted, including all those basic school supplies that teachers typically ask parents to provide for their kids at the start of each school year, including paper, notebooks, dividers, binders, markers, colored pencils, crayons, journals, books, scissors, rulers ... everything.

Special clothes for physical education cannot be required unless the school provides free P.E. uniforms to all students equally.

Graphing calculators for geometry? If those are required to complete assignments, the school must supply them.

How about the stand-up poster boards that science classes entering projects in science fairs require students to have? Yep, those too. It’s not permissible for teachers to require students to purchase those boards if participation is assigned.

Projects for art, history, social studies and any other classes that require materials to complete an assignment must be provided by the school.

If any student chooses to buy his or her own material, that is allowable. However, a student who cannot afford to design and decorate a poster board that looks like it was created by a professional artist cannot be penalized with a lower grade for not buying special supplies.

Other classes where costs run high are more problematic. Art, woodworking, digital photography, guitar, instrumental music of any kind, theater, dance or any other elective that requires materials, instruments, equipment or supplies must have all costs associated with the elective covered by the school district.

Athletics creates even more turmoil because of its expense. But the law specifically states that, even though sports may be extracurricular, if the school offers it and sponsors it, then it must be cost-free to parents.

This can create major headaches for administrators and coaches accustomed to charging parents — whether implied or explicit — for supplies, uniforms, camps, coaches’ salaries, busing and any other associated fees.

These costs can run into the thousands of dollars for parents – a tremendous hardship even in the best of times. And these are obviously not the best of times, which places financially strapped parents in a difficult bind as they try to cope with spending hundreds of dollars each year to have their daughter be a cheerleader or their son play football when it’s supposed to be a free public education.

Examples of violations

At San Diego Unified’s Clairemont High School, for example, a mandatory payment schedule, complete with due dates, shows monthly costs for cheerleading for the 2009-2010 season of $60 to $300, totaling more than $1,000 per participant.

The violations are not confined to SD Unified.

At the Poway Unified School District, this notice was recently posted on the Rancho Bernardo High School Web site:

“As a result of recent budget reductions at both the state and local levels, district funding for athletic transportation has been eliminated ... In order to continue to maintain transportation for athletic trips, we are imposing a fee of $90.00 per athlete per school year ... Please make checks payable to PUSD ...”

Yet it is clearly illegal to charge for transportation for athletics.

In the Sweetwater Union High School District, Bonita Vista Middle School posted a notice on its Web site, informing students and parents that students must wear P.E. clothes with the school’s logo. The notice also states: “If there is a financial hardship, please see your coach or assistant principal.”

But this too is illegal, because schools cannot force students to self-identify themselves as poor. Also, schools that require P.E. clothes to bear the school’s logo must provide them free to all students.

Here is a summary of California’s constitutional provision for a free public education:

“The California Constitution mandates that public education be provided to students free of charge, unless a charge is specifically authorized by law for a particular program or activity. This constitutional right of free access encompasses all educational activities, whether curricular or extracurricular, and regardless of whether credit is awarded for the educational activity.

“The right of free access also prohibits mandated purchases of materials, supplies, equipment or uniforms associated with the activity, as well as the payment of security deposits for access, participation, materials or equipment. Finally, a process that allows for a waiver process for an otherwise mandatory fee, charge or deposit does not render it constitutionally permissible.”

This may sound wonderful for parents, but it’s a disaster for cash-strapped school districts that have relied more and more on parent money to support their programs as the flow of dollars from the state has dwindled to barely a trickle.

Using parent money to fill in the gaps is illegal if presented as mandatory costs, as noted in the 1984 Hartzell vs. Connell court case, which concluded “charging participation fees to students was an unconstitutional solution to school funding woes.”

So Smith may be regarded as a hero in some quarters for finally bringing the issue to the forefront and insisting on school district compliance with the law.

However, if strong-arming tactics to get parents to pony up the money are outlawed, that may result in the elimination of some classes and programs due to a lack of funding. And that, to others, makes Smith a villain.

Foundations at work

Brett Killeen, principal of Torrey Pines High School in the San Dieguito Union High School District, said in an e-mail that the requirement to fund all extracurricular activities at his former high school in San Bernardino resulted in reduced quality of programs in some cases, a fact that sometimes “irritated students.”

For example, rather than allow the cheer team members to buy their own cheerleading outfits, the school supplied them. “It was of lesser quality and could not be customized, because the uniforms were used year-to-year,” Killeen said. “They were checked out to the students; they couldn’t keep them anymore.”

“It’s a tricky line,” said Brian Kohn, principal of Canyon Crest Academy, another high school in the San Dieguito district. “You want to make it clear these programs do cost money. They’re expensive. So you need the donations.”

But Kohn said the school is careful about the language used to solicit funds.

“We say, ‘Here’s what the program costs.’ But it’s very carefully worded to make sure that people understand that it’s not something that affects whether or not a student can participate,” he said.

The Envision arts program at Canyon Crest is particularly expensive. Even so, Kohn said no student whose family cannot afford to donate is denied participation.

“Parents are great,” he said. “Otherwise the program wouldn’t still be here. ... But there’s no tracking of who did and who didn’t [contribute] from the school’s perspective. That’s foundation work.”

Independently run nonprofit foundations are often the organizations that handle the funding for materials, supplies, equipment and outside salaries for coaches or artistic professionals that support athletics, arts and other costly activities or programs. This allows schools to avoid the impression that they are directly involved in solicitations for money.

“Years ago, our foundation and caring parents stepped up to fill the gap, because the last thing we wanted to do was cut a bunch of programs and activities,” Killeen said.

Eric Dill, San Dieguito’s executive director of business services, said, “The booster parents, the liaisons, they do their best to fundraise for the programs. But we always make sure that nobody is told you have to give in order to participate because that’s just not true.”

For athletics, Dill said the coaches and other district staff are not present when those solicitations are occurring.

“We make sure our coaches do know that when that part of any parent meeting happens, they need to pull themselves out of that because we don’t ever want to give the impression that someone has to donate for their child to make the team or get play time,” he said. “We try and keep it completely separate. As much as possible those coaches are in the dark as far as who donated and who didn’t.”

Killeen said, “We have very clear guidelines on what we can and cannot do with respect to donations and fees. This is not a pay-to-play school or district, and if something has that appearance, then we address it.”

Dill said no student is denied a grade or participation in a sport or art or special class because they can’t afford to contribute. “Whenever we find out that something isn’t quite right, we address it immediately,” he said.

McAllister said there is a proper place for foundations in all high schools these days, as districts confront unprecedented budget challenges. But he also advised caution.

“I do think that some of the tactics ... by certain foundations around southern California are pretty aggressive and assertive,” McAllister said. “I think they do make people feel pretty bad who can barely afford to get their kids to school and back every day. So it really places an unfair burden on those less fortunate and those who don’t have as much as others. ... They feel the pressure, they feel the stress.”

He said solicitations should be worded very carefully, saying, “I think a lot of parents feel pressure to give, and it’s almost a fear of, if you don’t pay you don’t play. That pay-to-play is really abhorrent to a lot of people.”

Basic supplies for regular classes

On the curricular side, Dill said the district made changes back in 2001 and 2002, when it was common for teachers to assign homework out of workbooks that students were required to purchase.

“We said no. If you’re going to make it part of your lesson plan, we can’t charge for that,” he said. “We have a pretty comprehensive list of what we can and can’t charge for.”

What the district can charge for, Dill said, are materials for projects that may go beyond what’s required. For example, in industrial arts, if the school provides a basic kind of wood and the student wants to create something out of more expensive wood, or if the student wants to keep the project, then the district can charge, he said.

For music classes or photography, Dill said the district provides instruments, although “most students choose to bring their own so they can practice on something that’s familiar to them.” And an inventory of digital cameras is available at all the district’s schools for students to check out, he said.

Despite efforts by San Dieguito administrators, wording for donations sometimes crosses the line.

When my son participated in track and field at Torrey Pines High School in 2008, parents received a notice of a mandatory parent meeting which read in part:

“Our team is dependent on parent donations. Coach’s [sic] stipends, meet fees and equipment are critical expenses for each season. This year’s suggested donation amount for each Track & Field athlete is $200 and is entirely tax deductible. Please make your check out to TPHS Track & Field.”

And on the reverse side: “Please be prepared to make your $200 donation at this time. Make your check out to TPHSF Track & Field. If you can’t attend this meeting, please contact the liaison or send your tax deductible donations to: [name].”

Does that sound like the “donation” is optional?

In addition, the flyer also includes the following notice: “Uniform purchase days will be on Monday, March 3 and Tuesday, March 4 right after school on the track for all athletes. Please make your checks out to TPHSF Track & Field.”

For TPHS men’s soccer for the two years he played, the same message came across. Parents were told to come to the mandatory meeting and bring three checks — one for the cost of the program per player, another check for the uniform and warm-up suit, and a third check for transportation.

The implicit threat was that your son would not play if there was no parent donation.

“I think that this school district and probably most school districts have to be vigilant about that because you can very easily get into gray areas and cross lines,” said Ken Noah, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District.

“In the time I’ve been here, I’ve not had a specific concern brought to me around [this issue]. But I certainly have had conversations [at meetings] where parents have concerns about the amount of outlay that they’re looking at annually.”

Noah said it’s difficult for schools, because parents and students badly want many activities that the district cannot afford.

“The reality that we face in the public schools is the ability to fund those kinds of things that are important to families and communities,” he said. “That’s a delicate balance to strike sometimes.”

A level playing field

Despite some resistance, SD Unified’s Smith refuses to give up. In a San Diego News Network editorial published Dec. 7, she wrote, “There is no constitutional mandate for districts to provide extracurricular activities in public schools, and the elimination of the arts and athletics is regularly touted as a budget solution. The outpouring of parent protests against these cuts each and every time they are proposed illustrates the public’s desire for these extracurricular activities and the corresponding duty of school districts to fund them if they elect to provide them.”

Voluntary donations can, of course, be accepted, but wording must be carefully crafted to ensure that parents do not interpret the request as a mandatory charge. Nor should there be any suggestions of pay-to-play or any implied message that kids might be cut from the team or give a lower grade if their family does not chip in with money or material to support the effort.

“Specific examples cited as impermissible include a specified minimum amount of a donation, a date by which a donation is due, or a lesser donation amount if funds are received prior to a certain date,” wrote Smith in her editorial. “Additionally, any statements or actions that exert explicit or implicit pressure on students or parents to make a donation are to be avoided, and the reason a student or family does not make a donation is not a subject for inquiry.”

This means avoiding any established amounts “for donations with deadlines and late penalties, removing all ‘materials required’ from teachers’ syllabi ... eliminating classes such as guitar that are not funded to include the necessary equipment or supplies, and removing all references to fees for classes ...” she wrote.

Smith says it is essential to comply with this law in order to provide “a level playing field for all students in public education.”

Canyon Crest’s Kohn said it was vital to ensure fairness in access. “We pay close attention to that, because it’s important,” he said. “It’s all about providing a free public education.”

Marsha Sutton can be reached at: