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Utah Board of Education orders review of school fees after complaints of high costs, student humiliation

Published June 14, 2017 8:40 am

Complaints over high costs and allegations of shaming of low-income students prompt scrutiny.
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State school board members have voted to launch an audit of the fees Utah public schools collect from students.

During their June 2 meeting, board members discussed reports made by staff and through a hotline regarding costly fees for activities and course materials, inconsistent application of fee waivers for low-income families, and allegations of students being singled out or otherwise humiliated for failing to pay fees or getting waivers.

The board voted unanimously in favor of an audit, which is intended to review school district and charter school compliance with state law and school board policies.

"Having the board prioritize it in a meeting means it's pretty urgent," said Debbie Davis, the board's internal audit director. "It's high-priority."

The audit coincides with the scheduled five-year review of school board policies on fee collection. School districts and charter schools are able to set their own price levels and levy fees for students in grades seven or higher.

Davis said state education managers have received a number of complaints related to fees, including reports that low-income families were made to pay fees despite qualifying for a waiver and allegations of school staff identifying wavier recipients as being subsidized by their fee-paying peers.

"They've identified a couple of concerns as they've been out monitoring," Davis said of Utah Board of Education staff.

During the June 2 meeting, Terry Shoemaker, executive director of the Utah School Superintendents Association, suggested that school fees are a perennial source of complaint and discussion for school district administrators.

"This is not an unknown subject among local [school] boards," Shoemaker told the Utah Board of Education. "Every year they have to deal with it in the same way that you're getting the same calls here."

And Utah Board of Education Chairman Mark Huntsman cautioned his colleagues against inserting the board into local-level decision making.

The board can review compliance issues, he said, but is "not in the fee-setting business."

"We are not the judge and jury of their fees," Huntsman said. "We don't have any say or any skin in the game if somebody is charging $100 or somebody is charging 10 [dollars]."

Board member Spencer Stokes suggested that "audit" is perhaps too strong a word. The board's goal, he said, is gather information for an analysis of school fees statewide.

"It's probably a misnomer," he said. "It's a compilation of the data so that we can quickly look at it."

Davis said the audit is still in its early stages, but she expected it to be complete by year's end.

"Right now I'm guessing five to six months," she said.


Twitter: @bjaminwood






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