Utah school districts could lose funding if they continue charging high fees for sports and clubs, state board decides

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Viewmont cheerleaders cheer at the Class 5A state wrestling championship match at the Utah Valley University UCCU Center on Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018.

Utah school districts that aren’t transparent about their dues for sports and clubs — or that don’t bring them down to “reasonable levels” — could face new penalties.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Thursday to craft and enact a discipline system after it was slammed two months ago in a scathing state audit for not providing oversight and allowing schools to charge students exorbitant fees. “How heavy and how big that hammer is” is still being worked out, said board chairman Mark Huntsman.

“But we need to have something to start with.”

The board gave preliminary approval to a handful of potential consequences for districts that don’t make adjustments, including requiring them to repay “improperly charged” dues, withholding their funding and suspending their right to charge fees at all.

It’s the first big step in addressing the audit and its recommendations. Huntsman said more solutions will be voted on next month. And board members spent much of the hourlong discussion batting around other ideas.

Member Joel Wright suggested cutting extracurricular activities from schools altogether if they’re going to be “taken over by rich parents.”

“Trying to combine the two is causing this problem and degrading education,” he said.

Member Carol Barlow Lear defended sports and clubs and said eliminating them would only further deny low-income students opportunities.

“Some kids will never have the chance to play in an orchestra if it’s not offered at school,” she noted.

Member Kathleen Riebe recommended setting statewide caps for each sport to create a level playing field.

“It’s not about pay to play,” she added. “It’s just to play.”

The state audit, released in September, 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.

The State Board of Education and local districts, the auditors concluded, have created barriers for involvement by levying these fees that can disadvantage students with less money. Often, too, they’ve ignored fee waivers for low-income students. And the “cycle of noncompliance” is breaking state law.

“We found a lot of violations,” said Jake Dinsdale, audit supervisor, to the board of education Thursday. “This is systemic.”

Utah’s constitution permits secondary schools to charge fees for activities. But a 1994 injunction from the state’s 3rd District Court said those dues must be “reasonable” in price to not bar students from participating. (At the time, $1,000 was deemed excessive.)

Schools have not adjusted much since then, Dinsdale said, and “the state board of education has not fulfilled its obligation to oversee the system adequately.” It has not checked to see if schools are disclosing fees to parents or if school boards are setting fees in public hearings, which it is supposed to do.

Only 50 percent of the schools investigated for the audit regularly submitted their required annual compliance form.

Under the discipline system outlined Thursday, a school district would receive an initial notice that it is not complying with the board’s standards for fees. If it develops and works on a corrective plan, it will be taken off the watch list. If it doesn’t, it will receive a second notice — which it can appeal — and then face financial consequences to be decided by the board.

The penalties will take effect after annual trainings with Utah’s school districts about school fees and restrictions.

The board intends to investigate complaints from parents and teachers, while also randomly checking on different districts and schools. It has also 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.

“There is a lot of water going under the bridge since your audit,” Huntsman told the auditors Thursday.

Audit manager Brian Dean approved of the penalty system for schools that don’t make changes, suggesting it’s like the threat of a speeding ticket — it might scare schools away from charging high fees.

Board member Janet A. Cannon said she worries that the discipline might affect students more than schools. Suspending a district from charging fees, for instance, might mean it cancels activities.

“That doesn’t feel quite right,” she said.

Member Laura Belnap, who serves on the School Fees Task Force, suggested it’s “just one piece in a giant puzzle” and that the board could change the punishments in the future — or choose not to use one at all.

“There is a lot to come.”