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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Xavier Yanez runs up the bleachers as the West High School baseball team works out after school in Salt Lake City on Thursday, April 12, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah public schools' failure to comply with school fee and fee waiver policies has resulted in an "unreasonable system of fees, which jeopardizes equal opportunity for all students … based on their ability to pay."

That's according to a new audit released Thursday by the Utah State Board of Education.

The audit found that Utah public schools collected $71 million in school fees in 2017 — a 29 percent increase in five years.

"It does sound staggering when you look at it in one lump sum," said Rachel Kitterer, parent of an East High School student and chairwoman of its school community council.

Kitterer said she has mixed feelings about fees because she appreciates that they help ensure classrooms will have the supplies they need. Fee waivers give students access to educational programs and extracurricular experiences they couldn't otherwise afford, she said.

That's a reality for many students who attend East High School, where 60 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced school lunch, she said.

The audit also found that despite a 20 percent increase in enrollment in Utah secondary schools, the percentage of students who received fee waivers or worked in lieu of paying fees decreased by just 4 percent over the same time frame.

The number of fees assessed between 2012 and 2017 increased by 18 percent. "However, it is important to note that not all fees are associated with mandatory activities; instead, many fees are associated with new opportunities within education," the audit states.

Absent a cap on fees, there is "specific probability of student exclusion from activities due to an inability to pay fees," the audit says. This could potentially lead to students becoming disillusioned, disassociating from school and eventually dropping out.

Beyond the fees assessed, auditors also raised concerns about how fee waivers are handled at some schools.

Among secondary schools examined by auditors, 17 percent "treated the students and parents differently from others and/or identified them to people who did not need to know they were on a waiver," the audit states.

Moreover, schools "informed coaches and teachers which students were on waivers without sufficient purpose," the audit found.

Nine percent of secondary schools reviewed did not discard confidential documentation after eligibility for fee waivers had been determined, the audit states.

It also found 6 percent of secondary schools reviewed did not obtain documentation to determine eligibility for fee waivers.

Heather Tuttle

The audit also found a growing gap between households that qualify for fee waivers and those that participate in waivers.

"The estimated gap between students who qualify for waivers and students who participate in waivers has grown from just under 20,000 students to almost 29,000 students within six years, an increase of nearly 9,000 students," the audit states.

"Although the gap between qualified vs. participate isn't explained, it does raise questions regarding a qualified student's, parents', or guardian's opportunity and/or desire to participate in the waiver program."

Bryce Dunford, a member of the Jordan School Board, said he and his wife Jennifer have 10 children.

"So I've been paying student fees for a long time," Dunford said.

When he was first elected to the school board in 2016, he had many concerns about school fees.

"I felt like it was an unjust way to extract more money from the public. It's like, 'Wait a minute. Thi iss supposed to be a free public education. Why do I pay so many fees?'"

But as he's researched the issue, his opposition has softened because he recognizes that many people consider them user fees. People who support schools through their income and property taxes and do not currently have children in school support users paying their way, he said.

Still, they need to be carefully scrutinized by local boards of education, he said.

"My frustration is, I think some schools have just got used to these fees. They don't think about them any more. They don't ask the question 'What are they for?' That's what we need to do. We need to examine every fee and say, 'Should we still be charging that? Is that the right amount? Have we charged too much in the past and we have a surplus?'" Dunford said.

State School Board internal auditors found a wide array of academic fees ranging from 25 cents for library fines up to fees for textbooks as high as $225; to $162 for lab fees and $135 for internet connections. Driver education fees were as high as $260 and some schools charged up to $100 for parking.

Kitterer's two children attended East and both were involved in extracurricular activities. To start the school year, their school fees were about $300 each, and occasionally there were others as each school year progressed.

"There are a lot thing that make you wonder, like the lab fees, computer fees. OK, but these are core classes. Why aren't those funded?" she said.

Extracurricular fees for some activities were significantly higher than most. Some schools charged fees as high as $1,100 for cheerleading, $950 for drill team and $500 for student government.

Fees were as high as $350 each for band and orchestra and performing arts. At least one school assessed a fee as high as $2,600 for travel.

Heather Tuttle
Utah public school fees collected

The audit found that 94 percent of 34 secondary schools with fee schedules inappropriately charged additional fees that were not included on their fee schedules, for items such as after-school programs, camps/clinics, field trips, dances, and student travel.

In anticipation of the release of the audit, the State School Board voted in March to create a school fees task force to review the findings and make policy recommendations to the board.

Deputy Superintendent of Operations Scott Jones said the audit raises serious concerns that will be tackled by a soon-to-be empaneled task force which will include members of state school board, child advocates, local superintendents, business administrators, educators and others.

"There's a high sense of urgency with this," Jones said.

"We're going to try to communicate if they do agree to participate that they do so at every meeting and commit to this just because it's so important along the lines of equity for the kids, well the family as a whole." he said.

Auditors made several recommendations to the board intended to address the audit findings and to "preserve equal opportunity for students within the public education system."

Among their state-level recommendations:

• Establish maximum fees a student or family can be charged. Auditors recommend consulting with local school officials when setting the fees.

• Identify and provide a comprehensive list of alternatives in lieu of fee waivers with a process in which local education agencies and schools can seek additional fee waiver alternatives.

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• Identify and clarify areas of the Utah Administrative Code Utah that have led to confusion and misunderstanding.

For school districts and charter schools, auditors recommended establishing controls that ensure:

• Policies and procedures are comprehensive, implemented, and monitored;

• All school-sponsored or supported activities, classes, and programs with their associated fees are identified, discussed in a public meeting and adopted annually;

• And, staff responsible for implementing fee collection and fee waivers have the proper resources and training to carry out their responsibilities.