SALT LAKE CITY — The beginning of every sports season brings a new wave of them.
Youngsters selling discount cards, cookie dough, wrapping paper, and candy. They beckon us to support car washes, bake sales and concession stands.
They're teenagers who need financial help to buy uniforms, attend camps and pay participation fees. Sometimes they're working to pay for a special trip, but often they're hoping just to cover the expenses of a new football, basketball or drill team season.
But big changes are coming in the way high school athletes are allowed to raise money to support athletics and activities that are affiliated with public schools. The biggest changes, however, will be in how the schools they attend can solicit money from communities, especially big donors, and how school officials manage that money.
This time last year state officials were blissfully unaware there were any financial issues regarding fundraising and donations. In fact, some districts and many state officials weren't aware that Utah high schools were raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support extracurricular activities until one high school's troubles became every district's cautionary tale.
"I think many people would be surprised at the amounts of money, and I think they would also be surprised about how casually those funds are sometimes maintained," said Utah State Office of Education attorney Carol Lear. "Taxpayers have a right to know where their money is going, have a right to see ledgers and books that account for that, and that hasn't always been available in the past."
Questions about a multi-million dollar training facility being built on Timpview High School property prompted three different financial reviews of the high school, all of which found problems. The issues led to the dismissal of the popular and successful head football coach Louis Wong and the discipline of several other employees in the school and district, most of which remains private because of state law.
The legacy of the Timpview audits and the findings, which included revelations about how much money was being generated by fundraisers and donations, was that most districts began looking at their own policies and procedures governing these activities.
What state officials found was they are woefully lacking or unknown and unenforced in many districts. State officials immediately began offering training to district officials and high school administrators and coaches and the question they received most often was "Can you give us more clear and specific guidance on these issues?"
Answering that question has been difficult.
Some districts were aware, at least superficially, of similar issues and began plowing ahead on their own, although they consulted with the State Office of Education officials as they tried to investigate their own schools and programs. One of those was the Granite District.
District spokesman Ben Horsley said district officials immediately began looking at programs that had presented problems in the past. The issues weren't confined to sports programs and they were not confined to specific schools. What they learned very quickly is that many high school programs were making and spending a lot of money with very little supervision.
"I don't think we were aware (of the amount of money)," said Horsley. "I think maybe some individuals were aware. There were definitely some individuals who were aware of how much money was being pumped into some of the programs. But our eyes are all a little more wide open now, not only about what's occurred in our program but state wide."
Granite officials aren't waiting for new state rules, although they're trying to anticipate changes. They passed a new donation and fundraiser policy in July that led to tremendous criticism, especially from patrons in the Cottonwood High area. The policy prevents people who donate more than $500 to a school in a year from participating in any decision-making role in any school program. It also more clearly informs donors that anything given to a school becomes the property of the district and the donor has no control over how it is used.
Patrons of Cottonwood High protested because it meant long-time assistant football coach and big money donor Scott Cate (who paid for the school to have a turf football field, among other things) could no longer volunteer with the program.
A similar issue was handled differently at Timpview by new principal Todd McKee. He said he wanted to allow his new head coach to select his own assistants, but he required that no one work in the program as a volunteer. All assistants had to be paid, and that means they're now subject to the ethics rules and regulations as other school employees.
Horsley said Granite officials plan to revamp two other aspects of district rules. Next Tuesday they'll consider a new fundraising policy and after that they'll consider new rules for camps and clinics.
"The Timpview audit made us recognize that we wanted to make sure our schools were dealing with these issues," he said.
Horsley said the rules are critical not just because there needs to be a public accounting of money raised in support of school-affiliated programs. He said they're also meant to protect opportunities for all students.
Some worst case scenarios:
Students have to pay or raise thousands of dollars or they're unable to participate in plays or sports teams.
Students whose parents donate or volunteer receive preferential treatment.
Football or boys basketball players earn more money, so more money is spent on their camps, facilities and programs, which violates federal requirements of Title IX.
The new state rule being discussed means to give districts and charter school boards guidance on the kinds of supervision necessary. The state is also working on best practice guidelines so the expectations are no longer gray but clearly black and white.
Lear said the Utah State School Board will likely vote on the new rule this month so they can have rules in place by next school year.
"It's sort of been every man for himself," she said. "We're saying, 'Here are some state-level minimal requirements for your accounting practices. And districts want the guidance. They've been very eager to know what our model policy will look like."
Maybe the only group more anxious to know what the new rules will entail are the parents whose children will be affected by the new policies.
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