Education • Some Utah districts are already using agencies to chase down unpaid money.
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Utahns who fall behind on their credit card bills, cable TV charges and other payments are accustomed to calls from collection agencies.
Soon, more parents who fail to pay school fees might also hear their phones ringing.
The Granite School District is considering contracting with a collection agency to track down unpaid student fees. During the past three years alone, the district estimated it has lost out on about $2 million in uncollected fees, said Ben Horsley, district spokesman. In Utah, high schools and junior highs often charge fees for textbooks, extracurricular activities and certain classes.
"The way things are going, it requires taxpayers and those who do pay the fees to basically subsidize those who do not," Horsley said of the uncollected fees. "The school simply subsidizes those activities and, at some point, it means other opportunities are lost as a result."
Granite recently wrapped up a call for proposals from collection agencies, and a district committee will meet in coming weeks to review the submissions. The board may consider at a summer board meeting whether to hire an agency, Horsley said.
How much the district would have to pay the agency would depend on which company wins a contract, Horsley said. But Jared Gardner, district purchasing director, said at a March study session that agencies often take a percentage of what they collect as compensation.
If Granite decides to hire a collection agency, it will hardly be the first district in the state to do so. The Alpine, Davis and Jordan districts also use agencies to hunt down unpaid fees.
Christopher Williams, a Davis spokesman, said many Davis schools have used collection agencies for years. A number of Davis principals said they now have anywhere from a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000 of unpaid fees, though they expect they'll get some of that back as the school year comes to an end.
Jeff Jorgensen, principal at South Davis Junior High in Bountiful, said his school is able to redeem most of its unpaid fees by threatening collections.
Luke Rasmussen, principal at Layton's Northridge High, said last year the school sent 35 outstanding files to its collection agency, just for seniors who had graduated, and so far, the agency has collected on 15 of those.
Jordan doesn't contract with an agency as a district, but some of its schools use them, said Sandy Riesgraf, district spokeswoman. Riesgraf said it's up to each school to decide how to go after unpaid fees, but typically they only use collection agencies in "extreme cases." She said schools generally try to first resolve unpaid fees through other means.
And Alpine, the state's largest school district, has been using a collection agency for about 10 years, said Rhonda Bromley, district spokeswoman. She said kids must rack up at least $50 of unpaid fees before the district will get the collection agency involved. She said the agency typically collects about 6 percent to 8 percent of the fees the district sends to it each year, and the agency keeps a third of the funds it collects as compensation. She said the district asks the agency to collect about $1,000 to $1,500 per year per each of its nine high schools.
She said having a collection agency helps "safeguard taxpayer funds as well as equity and accountability."
Horsley said Granite already tries to work with families when they fall behind on fees. He said typically the district will first try to see whether the family qualifies for a fee waiver an exception for lower-income families that allows them to skip paying fees.
He said sometimes kids can work off unpaid fees at the school, or schools can prohibit them from participating in certain activities, including graduation ceremonies (though they would still get their diplomas). Utah schools are not allowed to withhold transcripts or diplomas for failure to pay fees.
Taylorsville High parent Karen Witt is on the fence about the proposal. She believes the fees should be collected, but she wonders how much money the district could really recoup, even through a collection agency.
"If [families] haven't paid or can't pay, it's kind of hard to get water from a dry well," said Witt, a member of her school's community council.
She said her own family has sometimes struggled to make ends meet, but she added that she always tries to set up an arrangement with the school and then pay as soon as she can. Fees can easily add up to hundreds of dollars, especially with multiple children in school.
"Definitely the fees should be paid," Witt said.