Utah schools are charging students excessive and unreasonable dues to participate in sports and extracurricular clubs, and, in many cases, are ignoring fee waivers for low-income students, according to a scathing state audit.
The new report from the Office of the Legislative Auditor General, released Tuesday, looked at middle- and high-school programs in 20 districts across the state, including seven charters. In one school, it cost $2,500 to be a member of the cheerleading squad. In another, students paid $2,795 to participate in show choir.
Ultimately, the auditors concluded, the State Board of Education and local districts have created barriers for involvement by levying these fees that can disadvantage students with less money. And they’re breaking state law by doing so.
“When the fees get so high, it becomes so expensive that kids cannot participate,” said Brian Dean, audit manager. “It’s almost a pay-to-play system.”
Utah’s constitution is unique in that, unlike most other states, it explicitly permits secondary schools to charge fees for activities. But a 1994 injunction from the state’s 3rd District Court found that those dues had become exorbitant and must change to be “reasonable” in price so as not to bar students who qualify for fee waivers or financial assistance or simply can’t afford to join.
(At the time, it decided that $1,000 was excessive; today, adjusted for inflation, that would be about $1,795.)
The Utah State Board of Education, the court ruled, has a duty to oversee those fees and ensure compliance by the 41 districts statewide. The audit contends that the board has not done that.
“We recognize that this is a problem,” said Alisa Ellis, chair of the board of education’s audit committee, during a report on the state’s findings Tuesday at the Capitol.
Ellis said the board independently completed its own internal audit on school fees in April that came to many of the same conclusions as the state’s review. Out of that, the board voted to create a School Fees Task Force (which started meeting in June) to study how to resolve the issues.
The state school board intends to conduct annual trainings with Utah’s school districts about school fees and restrictions. It will also set a maximum — which was required by the court’s ruling but never enacted — for how much a family will be asked to pay in dues.
“We don’t want to fall back into a similar pattern,” added Scott Jones, deputy superintendent of operations for the Utah State Office of Education.
Jones said, too, that the board will create clearer standards for fee waivers, which should cover all costs for students and families that qualify for free lunch, receive disability payments, are in foster care or state custody or get federal welfare assistance.
The audit highlights that as the biggest shortcoming, noting that many districts “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.”
In one case, a school charged a student $160 for a football jersey. That cost should have been waived since the jersey was necessary to participate on the team. In other schools, students who didn’t qualify for a waiver were made to cover the costs for those who did.
The schools and districts described in the audit were not named. Audit Supervisor Jake Dinsdale said, “We wanted to focus on the findings and not the players.”
The “widespread and varied violations” detailed in the state’s audit also include unregulated fundraising, fees growing faster than inflation, schools not disclosing fees to parents and school boards not approving fees as they should. Sometimes, too, if the local board has approved fees, schools are still charging amounts well beyond that.
In another school, for example, the board approved a $40 fee for boys’ basketball. Each member ended up paying $399.
And only 50 percent of the schools investigated for the audit regularly submitted their required annual compliance form. There was no punishment for those who didn’t, though the Utah State Board of Education is supposed to withhold funding in those cases.
Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, who co-chairs the Legislative Audit Subcommittee and heard the report Tuesday, said the costs are out of control and there is “grave concern” that the state board hasn’t done much since the 1994 court ruling to see that fees remain in check.
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Layton, added that one high school in his district charges more for football than another down the street. He wants to see consistency in fees, too, and maybe an end to programs that are too costly. (Cheerleading consistently topped the list for price in the audit.)
“At the end of the day, the kids are the ones suffering from this,” he said. “That’s a really important part of the education experience, and we have to make sure that everyone has access to that.”
The state’s audit found that, in total, Utah schools collected $71 million in fees last year. That number, it concluded, is likely understated.