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FILE - Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, is working on legislation that would cover the costs of textbooks, lockers, registration and general fees through the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, a basic funding unit for public education in Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — What if the state of Utah — instead of Utah families — picked up the cost of curricular fees charged to parents of public school students in grades 7-12?

Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, is working on legislation that would cover the costs of textbooks, lockers, registration and general fees through the weighted pupil unit, or WPU, a basic funding unit for public education in Utah.

"I think we need to fund this fully so education is provided for all curricular activities at no charge as the original intent of the Utah State Constitution," said Robertson, addressing the finance committee of the Utah State Board of Education on Friday.

Robertson said his proposal, still in draft form, would not impact activity fees. Taxpayers shouldn't be expected to pick up cost of his daughter's band trips to St. George, Las Vegas or Disneyland, for example, he said.

The state's founders believed Utah has a moral obligation to give the rising generation "a solid, good education," he said.

Policymakers should abide by the intent of the Utah Constitution, which says "public elementary and secondary schools shall be free."

Robertson, the father of eight children who attend schools from elementary school to college, said his family has paid a lot of school fees over the years.

"When we go to sign up for classes at registration time, it's alarming how much we pay in fees. People who come from out of state are shocked that in Utah, even if you have no extracurricular activities, nothing special, you still pay a lot of money in fees. I know people who save up year-round just to pay for those fees," he said.

"I'm pushing we have this come through the WPU. This gives the LEAs (local education agencies) maximum flexibility," Robertson said.

The proposal has been discussed in the House Republicans caucus and "we have pretty good support," he said.

"The only pushback is the funding."

Robertson said legislative fiscal analysts are still working through the costs of the proposal. One estimate put it at $34 million annually or $125 per secondary student, but business administrators for local school districts who attended Friday's meeting said far more funding would be needed to cover costs.

Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, who served on the school fees task force convened by the State School Board last year, also has legislation in the works.

Much of it dovetails a proposed State School Board rule now in its fifth draft. The board rule also will address school fundraising.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE - Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, discusses a bill that would make it illegal for a medical provider to perform an abortion if they have knowledge that the woman seeking the procedure is doing so for "the sole reason" that the child would be born with Down syndrome. Lionsbee, who served on the school fees task force convened by the State School Board last year, has proposed legislation that requires the State School Board withhold funds from a school district or charter school board that does not comply with school fee laws and regulations.

Lisonbee's proposal requires that the State School Board withhold funds from a school district or charter school board that does not comply with school fee laws and regulations.

Her proposal also calls for greater transparency from school districts and charter boards on school fees and maximum fee amounts.

While the State School Board rule and legislation will be considered later this year, state board members and Lisonbee agree that it may be necessary to implement changes in the 2020-21 school year to give schools time to study and train secondary school leaders on the changes.

A number of school district business administrators attended Friday's meeting to discuss concerns about the proposed state board rule.

"We know we have to implement (new policies). We want to get it right," said Todd Hauber, business administrator of the Park City School District.

Hauber asked the committee to keep in mind that schools rely on fees as a funding source.

"We will acknowledge that these are a funding source for schools in the state of Utah. A user fee concept is not foreign. It's not an odd thing. It happens in government at many levels in many ways. So we're hoping this isn't an effort that will push us to the point of eliminating fees," Hauber said.

In 2018, two audits found equity and accountability concerns over Utah schools' handling of school fees.

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The legislative audit "found widespread and varied violations of state law by the Utah State Board of Education, school districts, high schools and charter schools." The audit said oversight and control of fees are week at the state and local level. It also found that fees may be an obstacle to school participation.

An internal Utah State Board of Education audit released earlier this year found 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."