You will pay

CUSD struggles to follow state’s rules on student ‘donations’

ANY PORTFOLIO IN A STORM <br>Teacher Chris Persson, who coordinates Chico High’s ACT program, said students “have full access to everything” even if they don’t contribute $25 for the leather portfolios in which their year’s work is collected in presentation form.

Teacher Chris Persson, who coordinates Chico High’s ACT program, said students “have full access to everything” even if they don’t contribute $25 for the leather portfolios in which their year’s work is collected in presentation form.

Photo By Tom Angel

What not to wear:
Until this year, Chico’s high school students were told they needed to purchase gym uniforms, the reasons apparently being safety and hygiene. At Chico High, a shirt-and-short set runs $16 ($1 extra for XXL sizes), sweatpants are $12 and a shorts and shirt cost $10 and $7, respectively, if bought one-at-a-time. At PV, the short-and-shirt set is $15.

Each summer, before school starts, Chico High ACT program coordinator Chris Persson hand-polishes the leather covers of dozens of portfolios until they shine and students aren’t able to tell if the one they’re issued is new or used.

The $25 cost of each portfolio is not a fee, it’s a donation, Persson asserts, and it’s most certainly not required.

It’s the interpretation of such purchases as mandatory that has teachers throughout the Chico Unified School District worried that a strict interpretation of state rules by the 2004-05 Butte County grand jury will mean students won’t get some important classroom and out-of-class experiences.

“There are a few classes, especially classes that have a lot of materials such as an art class” where it could make a big difference, said Mike Rupp, principal of Pleasant Valley High School. “[Teachers] are disappointed that kids are going to miss out on stuff.”

It was the $75 course “donations,” $16 gym uniforms and various materials fees for art, computer and woodshop classes that got the grand jury asking questions and sent the school district scrambling.

The California Department of Education holds that, in accordance with the state Constitution’s free-schools guarantee, “a pupil enrolled in a school shall not be required to pay any fee, deposit or other charge not specifically authorized by law.” This goes for electives as well as required classes. The state specifically forbids charging for art supplies, and for gym uniforms if not wearing them would hurt the student’s grade. (Chico High had been docking points for not wearing the uniform.)

In a section of its report titled “High price of education in Butte County,” the grand jury blasted the CUSD for collecting money from students at its high schools and junior highs. The report went so far as to recommend that the district refund previously paid “fees that are not required by law.”

Most disturbingly, the grand jury found, even if the fees were really “donations,” plenty of parents got the impression they were mandatory.

“Clearly, there were some inconsistencies in the way we communicated with parents,” Rupp said. “They too-often used the word ‘fee,’ and in some cases they used the word ‘fee’ inappropriately.

“We did so much last year in that second semester to make sure parents understood there’s no charge for their child’s education. … We’ve clarified to students that they didn’t have to pay that.”

The grand jury also singled out Chico High’s “Small Learning Communities” as an area where it said fees were being wrongly charged.

“We have never required it,” said Persson of the $75 a year the ACT program, which has a cross-curriculum focus on technology, requests of each student in addition to the one-time $25 donation for the portfolio. “It was always made clear if a person could not afford it or chose not to, that would be fine.”

But without the student money that augments dollars from the state, she said, “We’re in deep trouble.” The state funds ACT as a California Partnership Academy with an $81,000 grant to serve 90 students. But Chico High has stretched that to include 300 in the program, with the help of some $20,000 from students and parents. That money provides for extended lab hours in the evenings and weekends, equipment maintenance, desktop publishing equipment and other things.

“I’m concerned,” said Persson, who was interviewed by the grand jury for an hour. “I fear that if we’re not allowed to ask for donations it will significantly impact what we’re allowed to do for kids.”

At the same time district officials say they want to do things by the book, they acknowledge that the rules about these kinds of things aren’t always clear.

In light of the grand jury’s investigation, the district decided to contract with a consulting firm called Fiscal Crisis Management & Assistance Team (FCMAT), an undertaking that will cost $5,000 to $10,000. FCMAT was in Chico last week meeting with district workers to determine how the CUSD is collecting money and what practices should be changed.

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“We want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” said Assistant Superintendent Kelly Staley. “There’s a lot of stuff in the grand jury report that is of legitimate concern.”

For example, Staley said, the state mandates that any time a school group raises funds it funnel them through the principal’s office—even if it’s as simple as a one-day car wash. “It would be so innocent,” she said. “They do it for the right reason but they don’t realize all the rules that go with it.”

According to a February 2004 report by the consulting firm School Services of California, more and more districts are trying to compensate for decreasing state revenue by asking students and parents to kick in—a practice that has several times found schools at the losing end in court.

Fees may be collected, the state Education Code states, when the student has fabricated something he or she will take home and keep. Schools can also charge for food, lost books, damaged school property, parking, field trips (although kids can’t be left out if they can’t pay), insurance for students on athletic teams, fingerprinting programs and a few other things. Some of the rules are convoluted, such as the one forbidding charging deposits for borrowed band instruments—unless they’re being taken to a foreign country.

Districts are also allowed to charge for home-to-school transportation. In the CUSD, students are charged for bus rides if they live within two miles of their elementary school or three miles of a secondary school.

Even the idea of a waiver, or simply not collecting money from students whose families aren’t in a financial position to pay, is illegal, the grand jury reported.

“Fee waivers should not be offered as most fees are not appropriate,” the grand jury wrote. Also, the jury found that the CUSD’s waiver applications asked students to state if they received free or reduced-price lunch, a violation of privacy rights.

Staley agreed. “That’s putting kids in a tough spot. We can’t ask for it.”

“The bottom line is everyone’s entitled to a free education.”

School board President Rick Anderson hopes FCMAT can find ways for Chico schools to accept donations for class materials and activities without running afoul of the law.

“This is not new territory for FCMAT,” Anderson said. “There are ways to address the issue so we can continue to provide a quality classroom experience as well as experiences outside of the classroom.”

Rupp said he’s looking forward to the FCMAT workshops. “We’re going to ask questions about some things that are in the gray area,” he said. For example, some students have been telling parents they’re required to buy a workbook for some classes, when in reality they could just copy the workbook questions down on paper and save the cash.

In the case of an art class, Rupp said, he’s hoping the teacher can provide paper for painting but suggests that if some students wanted to do the project on canvas, they could buy their own. “This difference in tone is, ‘If you want to do it.'”

The grand jury commended PV for its quick action to end the gym uniform requirement.

Rupp said that although he’s happy for the opportunity to be “totally compliant” with state rules, the grand jury report seemed a little excessive. “It wasn’t necessary to hit them with a bat. People are willing to change.”

Chico High last week sent a note to parents stating that P.E. uniforms are not required, but “for sanitary reasons” students must wear either the clothing offered for sale by the district, similar clothing brought from home ("school colors are preferred") or borrow uniforms from the district for the school year.

The grand jury’s report also blasted the CUSD for the way it keeps track of student body and other funds at the school-site level.

“Over the last six or seven years where we’ve reduced our budget every single year, we’ve reduced our administrative staff. Sites have operated with increasing autonomy,” said Anderson, who said the district plans to take some duties back to the District Office and coach site money-watchers better than it had in the past.

“The problem is, the state does not fund education at an adequate level. Lack of funding at the state level is really the core problem,” he said.