“They keep telling you these things are optional, but everyone else is buying them,” said a Canyons District mom. “Are you going to let your kid be singled out?”
If it's not optional, it's not legal
Some parents who talked to the Deseret News said the costs created burdens for families and were deterrents for those already on the edge financially.
“It discourages people from even trying out,” said the Canyons District mom.
Even some coaches acknowledged that even if they don’t say it, parents and students feel the optional activities and costs are an obligation, necessary if their sons want to compete.
Utah State Office of Education officials said simply telling players a cost is optional does not solve the problem, and maybe more importantly, it doesn’t abide by the law that protects student-athletes from being excluded for financial reasons.
“What schools are doing, “ said Heidi Alder, an attorney and investigator with the Utah State Office of Education, “is charging the participation fee (set by the school board), and then adding into their own programs, not approved by the board, all of these quote-unquote optional fees.”
If a cost or fee is required to run a program, it has to be waivable for those who qualify. And only the school’s administration can make that determination, not coaches. However, since coaches are often the ones who see which kids are in greatest need, oftentimes they are the ones determining which kids' fees can be waived.
“The only fees they really should be charging are those approved by the local school board and notified to parents,” Alder said. “It really does skirt the rule, to say, ‘This is optional.’ ”
Alder, who teaches financial training to school officials as well as investigates ethical and legal complaints, isn’t alone in thinking statements about summer camps and spirit packs being optional is disingenuous.
“If the practice jersey is in the spirit pack, and it’s the practice jersey, then it’s not optional,” said Fraser, who started coaching football in 1976 and spent nine years as the head coach at Granger and five years as the head coach of Hunter. “If the team is going to a summer camp, it’s not optional.”
Understanding that reality, and knowing that the Granite District used to help fund these summer programs when he was a coach, prompted Fraser to lead a successful effort to convince the Granite Board of Education to find money to begin subsidizing those summer camps again.
Now Granite District schools have the option of holding a team camp at the high school for $50 and coaches are paid according to their education and experience (which usually means more money). The most important benefit is that those camps then become waivable fees for qualifying students.
“The reality is if a kid doesn’t come to camp, he doesn’t play,” said Fraser.
For their part, parents say they don’t need to hear the word “mandatory” from coaches; it’s simply understood.
“It’s not optional and everyone knows it,” said a Jordan District father. “If your son wants to make the team, you pay the money and he attends the camp. If they ask you for something, you give it, whether it’s time or money or whatever. You want your kid to play.”
But both Stephens and Peck said they have starting players who didn’t attend their summer camps for various reasons. And Alta principal Fidel Montero said he’s bothered the state would insinuate that coaches don’t mean it when they say a cost is optional.
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