Winston Armani, KSL TV

Utah's school board wants law to address school fees problem

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Posted - Dec 6th, 2018 @ 8:05pm


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SALT LAKE CITY — The State School Board voted Thursday to ask state lawmakers to consider legislation that clarifies that if schools do not comply with Utah laws on school fees, they could lose state education funding.

It was one of four recommendations by a board task force that studied school fees for five months, meeting 12 times in four-hour work sessions following two audits that found multiple violations of state law and constitutional concerns about how Utah public schools handle school fees and fee waivers.

A 1994 permanent injunction resulting from a lawsuit over school fees gives the State School Board authority to withhold state funding from schools that do not appropriately handle school fees and waivers, but no one has ever leveled those penalties.

It remains an option, but the State School Board wants the heft of state law.

"We already have a law. We expect compliance," said Mark Huntsman, chairman of the State School Board, who led the schools fees task force.

The task force was formed to address issues highlighted in two state audits, one ordered by the Utah Legislature and the other by the board's own auditors.

A legislative audit found "widespread violations of state law" by the State School Board and local boards of education, high schools and charter schools in their handling of secondary school fees.

The board's audit found that Utah public schools' failure to comply with school fee and fee waiver policies has resulted in an "unreasonable system of fees, which jeopardizes equal opportunity for all students … based on their ability to pay."

The board's audit estimates that Utah public schools collected $71 million in school fees in 2017 — a 29 percent increase in five years, a figure that auditors from both agencies have noted is "materially understated."

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While the board adopted amended versions of the task force recommendations, work on related state board rules and seeking legislation remain a work in progress.

Other task force recommendations approved by the board include asking lawmakers to clarify the definition of textbook in state statute and prohibit schools from charging for textbooks unless they are for concurrent enrollment or Advanced Placement classes.

The board will also seek a funding stream or some other mechanism to offset the impacts of fee waivers, which are supposed to be extended to students who come from low-income households for qualifying activities and coursework.

Some school districts spread the impacts among all of their high schools but that is not possible in small districts where there is only one high school.

Earlier, the board voted to devote resources to hiring more staff to improve monitoring of schools' compliance with state laws.

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