Schools grapple with fee rules

It’s a hard lesson to swallow: If a school district can’t afford to pay each student’s way for field trips, supplies or course materials, it shouldn’t be offering them at all, say experts.

In June, the 2004-05 Butte County Grand Jury Report highlighted a variety of things for which the Chico Unified School District had apparently been illegally charging students for years.

On Oct. 25, principals, activities and athletic directors and comptrollers met with a consultant to Bakersfield-based Fiscal Crisis Management & Assistance Team (FCMAT), which the CUSD is paying $400 a day to bring the district up to speed on case law and the state Educational Code.

The school leaders attempted to stifle their frustration as consultant Michele Dodge outlined a list of allowed and forbidden fees that even she acknowledged were sometimes counterintuitive.

The bottom line, Dodge said: “If you require it, you have to provide it.”

And if, following the grand jury report, some teachers thought they could simply make some types of projects and materials optional, Dodge said they’re mistaken.

“It creates a two-tiered educational system … where you can do a better project if you pay for it,” Dodge said, citing a published legal opinion. She said low-income students may not get far enough to learn that the fees are optional because proud, embarrassed parents discourage them from signing up for such courses in the first place.

The advice runs counter to current district policy, which allows students to buy higher-grade wood, extra hardware, additional photo paper and so on for elective courses.

The exception would be if a student ultimately takes home and keeps his or her project, in which case Dodge said the district could only charge for the actual cost of materials for each project, not a general class lab fee.

Some teachers said that approach creates a whole new, visible dividing line between the haves and have-nots, with some students’ work being handed back to them to take home while others’ is set aside only to be thrown away at the end of the school year.

Mike Rupp, principal of Pleasant Valley High School, said, “The core question to me is am I ever going to approve another class that costs that much.”

The examples went on and on, from fourth grade Spanish Mission-building projects to welded trailers taking home ribbons at county fairs to three-ring binders for organizing classwork. There was one FCMAT session for elementary school administrators and another for those leading junior high and high schools.

A student can’t be charged for band equipment—unless he or she abuses or loses it. But it’s OK to expect student musicians to provide “consumables” such as reeds or drumsticks.

Fund-raising cannot be required, and it cannot be tied to a grade. And the fund-raising must be for the entire group, not connected to each student. If someone can’t afford the trip, he or she can go anyway. And, clarifying a point of confusion, Dodge said it’s legal to collect extra money from each family to compensate for students who can’t afford to donate at all.

The district can charge for field trips taken during class time but not for extracurricular activities outside of school hours, such as transportation for sports teams—a distinction that baffled some in attendance. ("That just seems so backward,” sighed one athletic director, mentioning legal opinions to the contrary.)

In an aside, Rob Williams, principal of Bidwell Junior High School, muttered: “Paradise needs to hear this. [And yet] it’s all about Chico.”

Teacher Bruce Dillman, who led a Chico High choir trip to China with which the grand jury found fault, asked the question that was on everyone’s minds: “Where’s that money going to come from? … You can’t do it without those fees.”

Urging listeners not to “kill the messenger,” Randy Meeker, CUSD assistant superintendent for business services, said the matter of how to compensate for lost fees will be taken up later.

“I don’t have all the answers for you,” Dodge said. “You can’t go back to the fees you were charging and I think you all know that.

“You’re trying to provide quality education in a state that doesn’t provide quality funding.”

In an interview, Trustee Rick Rees said the district wants to find out once and for all what’s right. “It’s not a public relations effort. It is what it is,” he said. “In all deference to the grand jury, what’s even more important is that we find out which of the things they pointed out are accurate and correct them.”

“Under the circumstances, I don’t know if Chico Unified can go ‘too far,'” he said, mentioning the new, 2005-06 grand jury’s stated intent to continue investigating.

“The tough part of this is what it does for the morale of teachers,” Rees added.

Superintendent Chet Francisco, who recently led a district in Riverside County, said if other districts aren’t worried about fee rules, they will be soon. “I have a hard time thinking that this isn’t on everyone’s radar screens.”