SALT LAKE CITY — After two audits found "widespread and varied violations" of state laws on school fees and fee waivers, a state lawmaker sponsoring legislation intended to bring Utah schools into compliance said the answer is found in a 1994 permanent injunction.
"This has created a new conversation but it is not a new law. This is the 1994 permanent injunction," said Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, while presenting HB250 to the House Education Committee on Thursday.
She referred to a permanent injunction issued by then-3rd District Judge John A. Rokich in a 1992 lawsuit challenging school fee practices.
The judge's ruling notes many of the same violations of school fee requirements found in recent audits: unauthorized fees, denial of due process and refusal to waive fees.
"Current legal requirements have long been misinterpreted and misunderstood causing widespread noncompliance," said Lisonbee, sponsor of HB250.
Lisonbee described the legislation, which is largely the product of a state school board task force of which she was member, as "a process and transparency bill."
Quoting from a 2018 legislative audit, Lisonbee said, "Many LEAs (local education agencies) are not waiving certain fees for waiver-eligible students and are potentially excluding students who do not qualify for waivers by increasing fees to unreasonable levels."
"That is what this bill tries to get at," she said.
The bill sets no caps on fees but says "the fee shall be equal to or less than the expense incurred" by a school in providing the activity to a student.
Under current law, school boards are required to approve secondary fee schedules in the spring.
"If it's not on the fee schedule in the spring it cannot be charged in the fall when school starts," said Mary Nielson, a member of the Juab School District school board and former president of Utah School Boards Association.
However, many school boards have also charged "optional fees," which are not permissible, she said.
"There are no optional fees," Lisonbee said.
Nielson said this change alone will require some "hard conversations" with respect to actual costs of offering a cheerleading squad or football team.
"I think as school board members, we are going to going to have to talk to parents and ask them 'What is it that you really want?' and parents are going to have to drive that conversation," she said.
HB250 also clarifies that schools found to be out of compliance with school fees laws will be subject to "corrective action," which can include requiring a school to repay improperly charged fees, withholding state funds and suspending a school's authority to charge fees for a period specified by the state school board.
Penalties for noncompliance were spelled out in the 1994 permanent injunction, but legislative auditors found the Utah State Board of Education never took that step even though those remedies were available for more than two decades.
"We found no evidence (the State School Board) has ever enforced this penalty despite a history of violations. Without such accountability from the state level, local education leaders have had little motivation to understand and comply with the law," the legislative audit states.
Under HB250, schools may not charge for textbooks except for those used for concurrent enrollment and Advanced Placement classes.
However, schools may charge refundable deposits to ensure students return and take care of school-purchased textbooks.
School fees may not be assessed for educational programs in elementary schools that take place during the regular school day, but HB250 clarifies that lists of suggested supplies that many parents provide to their child's elementary schools are not mandatory.
According to the bill, any such list sent to parents must be prefaced with this language, "Notice: The items on this list will be used during the regular school day. They may be brought from a home on a voluntary basis. Otherwise, they will be furnished by the school."Comment on this story
A 2018 Utah State Board of Education audit estimated that Utah public schools assessed some $71 million in secondary school fees in 2017.
Legislative auditors said they believe the figure was "significantly understated."
Aside from the costs of fees, the state school board audit raised concerns about an "unreasonable system of fees which jeopardizes equal opportunity for all students … based on their ability to pay."
The House Committee gave unanimous approval to HB250 and it moves to the House for its consideration.