No blame game on illegal student fees


By Marsha Sutton

It would be easy to assume, after the last few columns, that the staff at the San Dieguito Union High School District deserves condemnation.

Recent stories highlighting what may be unlawful student fees have been critical. The schools’ nonprofit foundations have not always followed the rules, the district dropped the ball by improperly charging for graduation attire, and district policy to charge students for parking privileges is being challenged.

What were once requests for money have over the years escalated into a sense of entitlement. Topping everything was the property tax bill overcharge debacle last fall.

Flaws have been exposed, but this is no Sweetwater.

Maybe they let a few things slide, or didn’t follow through when they should have, or communicated the wrong message. But I’ve worked with many educators in 18 years covering local districts, and SDUHSD has some of the finest.

The district is top-notch, peopled generally by honorable administrators with integrity who are gracious in accepting responsibility and respect principles of transparency.

SDUHSD superintendent Rick Schmitt and his team always respond to my questions openly, are generous with their time, and are quick to admit mistakes.

That said, Sally Smith, the education advocate who filed a Uniform Complaint against San Dieguito last May, also deserves applause for bringing the subject of illegal student fees front and center.

Pitting student rights activist Smith against a district staffed by decent administrators has no winner. No question that Smith is a champion who fights heroically for the rights of students, particularly low-income families. But that San Dieguito may have violated some equal access principles in no way implies a systemic, deliberate intent to circumvent the law.

The issues raised by Smith have hopefully triggered some serious review of policies and procedures inside the district. Certainly this public discussion has prompted questions from outside.

One byproduct of these stories has been inquiries from readers about other practices, such as paying for yearbooks, dances, uniforms for band and choir, art and photography supplies, field trips, club and academic team competitions, and other fee-based activities.

Guidelines generally state that no fees can be charged if it’s an educational activity for which attendance is taken or a grade is given.

Karl Mueller, principal at Canyon Crest Academy, said the distinction is whether it’s enrichment or a mandatory component of the school. If it’s part of the educational program, it must be inclusive and funded either by voluntary donations or by the school, he said.

“Access and equity are critical to me,” he said. “If it’s part of an enrichment experience and it’s optional, that is where I have always understood that line to be.”

But the line sometimes blurs.

If athletic teams and school clubs represent their schools when they travel to competitions, should funding be different than for strictly on-campus extracurricular activities?

There is clarity in other areas. It is prohibited to charge for uniforms or clothing for band or choir, or supplies for art and photography, if these are classes where grades are given. On the other hand, yearbooks, dances and sporting events are voluntary and are not required to be funded.

Particularly costly and not affordable for many students is Senior Week, when events for graduating seniors during the last week of school can include trips to Disneyland, breakfasts, evenings out together, boat rides and other activities planned by the school’s students.

Senior Week can cost $100 or more, but the district does not provide funding for this.

Eric Dill, SDUHSD associate superintendent for business services, said Senior Week is optional, with activities sponsored and planned by students and sometimes parents.

Senior Week is not driven by the school but by the class, unlike the graduation ceremony, he said.

Sally Smith acknowledged that yearbooks and dances are optional and not required to be funded, but disagreed about Senior Week, calling it “an educational activity for an identifiable group.”

“All the seniors should be included in the activities,” she said, adding that all should go or none go. “No school activities should be so expensive that students cannot participate.”

Cap-and-gown contracts

Smith rejected the district’s response to her Uniform Complaint which denied any violations of the law, and she plans to pursue her fight for equal access and equity.

“I have appealed the San Dieguito school district decision because its legal analysis puts it on very shaky ground,” Smith wrote in an email June 19.

Regarding the San Dieguito cap-and-gown fees that were illegally charged to students and are being refunded, Smith wrote, “State superintendent Tom Torlakson sent an advisory to all school districts in October that fees were not to be charged for graduation, so there is no excuse for charging for the caps and gowns.”

After the district received the CDE notice last fall, all high school principals were advised of the new regulation, Dill said. But not one school informed students and parents of the new policy.

“In the end it just didn’t translate,” he said. “Messages sometimes don’t get communicated well.”

The cap-and-gown agreement with vendor Jostens Inc. for Torrey Pines High School was a scant one-page “contract” that even Dill thought was iffy.

“I’m not sure this is a good contract,” he said.

The latest agreement, signed by then principal Brett Killeen, is dated Nov. 19, 2009, and Dill said it is probably still active.

“We do have lots of agreements that roll over unless otherwise cancelled,” Dill said, adding that this one “is probably the shortest.”

The agreement states that Jostens will supply the cap-and-gown unit for $30 each for the 2009-2010 school year and that the school will receive a flat fee of $3,000 in “rebates/contributions” by Oct. 1 of the following school year.

Some contractors, like photography and cap-and-gown vendors, give money back to the district in exchange for their contracts. Dill said they work on commission and the schools receive “a few dollars per student” from contractors for exclusive rights to sell their services as the preferred vendor.

It’s not exactly a kickback, but is certainly incentive for the district to renew the contracts year after year.

It took Dill nearly three weeks to find the 2009 Jostens TPHS contract, and he has yet to uncover the agreement with Canyon Crest.

Next year the district’s purchasing department needs to consolidate the individual school contracts and “get involved and do something that is coordinated” to receive a better price, he said.

This year students paid $40 to $55 for their graduation apparel (money the district is now obligated to refund), when some vendors charge only $13 per unit in bulk.

But the idea of traditional graduation attire may need re-thinking altogether, Dill said.

In eighth-grade middle school promotion ceremonies, he said students simply wear nice clothes. And at this year’s high school graduations, he noted that many gowns weren’t zipped, exposing casual clothes underneath, making a dress code for graduation ultimately unenforceable.

Dill said the district’s principals all agree that students refusing to wear a cap and gown could walk at graduation anyway.

“The principals all said, ‘If kids didn’t want to wear it, that wouldn’t be a hill I would die on,’ on the last day of school,” Dill said.

He said a handful of kids every year choose not to even walk at graduation, and that’s permitted because participation in the ceremony isn’t required for a diploma.

It’s a tradition to wear a cap and gown but not required, said Dill, calling it a free speech issue.

“This is a question we’ll have to consider before we go out and get proposals for a district-level cap-and-gown contract,” he said.

Foundations over-reach

Nonprofit school foundations are established to raise donations to support school programs, but sometimes they over-step their bounds.

For instance, Smith objected to the Sports Physical nights offered each spring by San Dieguito’s foundations.

Since CIF rules require physicals before athletes can participate in high school sports, foundations have for years charged a nominal fee for these physicals as a fundraising opportunity. But Smith believes this is not legal.

“The San Dieguito foundations are charging for sports physicals, but charities are supposed to ask for donations, not charge fees,” Smith said in an email. “These foundations are not complying with IRS laws.”

“While CIF has mandated sports physicals, it is not an authorized fee in the education code,” she said. “CIF rules do not override the state constitution.”

Smith was critical of the district’s focus on fundraising, saying, “Instead of being grateful for the immense financial support of parents, the district has sought ways to extract even more money from parents because they do not know the laws.”

She referenced the San Dieguito Academic Honesty Policy: “Honest behavior is an expectation for all students in the San Dieguito Union High School District.”

“Staff should emulate the behavior it expects from teenagers,” Smith said.

Over-zealous school district? Or an over-zealous education activist?

School districts and education foundations are becoming more aware that the public is watching and holding them accountable, and the public is growing more cognizant of its rights.

Regardless of how these individual issues are resolved, these are good conversations to have.

Marsha Sutton can be reached at