‘It will be a bumpy road ahead’ to comply with changes in student activity fees and travelOct 24, 2019 01:23PM ● By Julie Slama
Although Hillcrest High drama students, seen here in 2016, traveled to New York City to better understand theater, they would now need to meet new Canyons School District travel regulations that align with a 1994 court ruling. (Photo courtesy of Marie Otto)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
Hillcrest High’s top band, orchestra and vocal ensemble met earlier this fall to discuss their possible upcoming tour to Washington, D.C.
It wasn’t for certain, parents learned, as Canyons School District’s travel policy changed to be compliant with the state. The expected announcement of the trip will be in November.
Canyons now has a travel policy that includes a $1,250 price tag limit, non-competitive travel limited to every other year beyond 425 miles unless petitioned, and paperwork can’t be filed more than 150 days before the trip, amongst other regulations, Hillcrest band director Austin Hilla said.
“It makes touring for all students more even-handed and accessible, but with restrictions, it becomes a challenge,” he said. “It’s important for our students to go, gain exposure, learn the significant impact of the music culture across our country and are able to communicate in the same language — through music. Our trips are co-curricular, they tie into the core, but are not required for a grade. Last year, they were recorded at a professional recording studio. It’s an opportunity that they wouldn’t get otherwise.”
It isn’t just that Canyons is changing their policy. Each local educational agency, or LEA, also more familiarly known as school districts and charter schools, are ensuring their policies regarding travel and student fees.
State Board of Education School Fees Project Lead Tamra Dayley said that this past year, after continuing to get three or four daily complaints from parents claiming, “public education isn’t free” and concerns about increasing numbers of fees and soaring amounts, the Utah Board of Education “looked into it to make sure we are compliant” with a 1994 court case ruling. She said the task force discovered that many “schools were misunderstanding the ruling. We found many school districts weren’t compliant with the court ruling” during the past decades.
To be fair, Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said that with the growth in school programs and competitions, nobody could see the direction of co-curricular activities and travel.
“Most school districts thought they were compliant and they were not knowing and unintentionally going against it,” he said. Years ago, “there were no names on jerseys or needing a new helmet, or needing multiple costume changes, or needing to play or perform out of state. Now, our school board will be looking into the activities to determine if the travel is reasonable, if it’s the only competition of its kind to travel, and if these trips are meaningful. We want to make sure all our kids can participate.”
In 1994, 17 school children from five area school districts and seven parents heard from Utah’s 3rd District Court that the state must provide “a system of public schools open to all children of the state” and “there must be reasonable uniformity and quality of educational opportunity for all children throughout the state.”
Furthermore, the court found that “local (school) boards of education are continuing their efforts to eliminate nonessential expenditures that have unreasonably driven up costs for many programs which have great value for students, such as choir, debate, vocational courses and team activities, and that additional efforts will be made to ensure that those above the current wavier eligibility standard are not ‘denied the opportunity to participate because of an inability to pay the required fee, deposit or change.’”
While fee waivers are available “to ensure that no student is denied the opportunity to participate because of an inability to pay the required fee, deposit, or charge,” fees and fundraising were increased amongst other participants, so much, that it made it difficult for some students to participate in one activity, let alone several, Dayley said.
“We were finding that here is a group of three, four, five fee-eligibility students, but we can’t have other students paying additional fees to cover the fee-waiver kids. We need to charge all students equally and have the LEAs pay to have everyone participate,” she said. “If it is a project or field trip related to the course that is graded, then the schools or school districts needs to pay so all students have that same opportunity for the grade.”
Co-curricular activities and travel also were scrutinized.
“We’ve seen prices raised for several uniforms, travel and items that aren’t critical to the activity,” Dayley said.
In Granite, where more than 60% of the students qualify for fee waivers, their Board of Education looks for equality amongst the high schools.
“Gone is the day that names are printed on jerseys and are given to students at the end of the year,” Horsley said. “We need to make it a quality experience and quality program across the board.”
Another example, Dayley said are performing arts trips.
“If schools feel that travel and performance are important for the band, choir or performing arts group to provide an integral part of their education, then they need to evaluate if it’s good enough for the rich kids, how they will help pay for the socio-economic kids and find a way,” she said. “What we need to question is ‘is the trip to Disney for one hour of instructional time considered instruction or is it more of a trip?’”
Several districts’ drama teachers have sidestepped these rules by creating a community-based trip to New York, allowing students, alumni and others to join on what may have once been a school trip, Dayley said.
“As long as it’s a community trip, and teachers aren’t using the school to promote or handle arrangements or be liable, and advertise it ‘at an arm’s length,’ from the school, then it’s permissible,” she said.
Complying with the changes ahead with activity fees and travel, Dayley said, “It will be a bumpy road ahead. Some rural districts already have made that hard decision. They don’t have a football team, or choir, or cheerleaders.”
Canyons School District Spokesman Jeff Haney said Canyons’ discussion at all levels has been how to fairly implement fees at the most reasonable cost possible while still maintaining the same number and quality of activities that parents have come to expect from Canyons District schools.
“Travel has become an expectation by many parents and students,” he said. “But the district must consider if the travel is contributing to an academic goal and if the district is able to fund fee-waivers for students where needed. The other danger is that if robust programs are not provided, families with means will continue to seek private lessons, teams or instruction, but students without the means would lose the opportunity to participate at school. The (Canyons) Board of Education is giving great consideration to what is fair and reasonable while also considering how to maintain robust and educational programs for all students.”
As of April 1, schools now have to outline what is included with the fee charges, whether it’s a lab fee or a sports and club activity fee — and there are regulations in fundraising, including the amount raised and the families’ time commitment involved.
“We want transparency. We want to know what’s important and what schools are doing with the fees,” Dayley said. “We want parents knowing, before their student goes into it, how much the maximum amount will be.”
Horsley said that there will be changes, as the law states that fundraising is optional and that the school district will need to cover costs.
He said that a Granger High audit showed that cheerleader fees cost about $2,500, but “not a single one paid because they were covered by fundraisers. But now, if someone doesn’t want to participate in fundraising, they don’t have to.”
However, their costs are being examined.
“We need to look to see if our fees are reasonable and if they really need to have four outfits and three out-of-state trips,” he said.
It isn’t just the Utah Board that is reviewing the fees.
This year, in the legislature, House Bill 250 would require LEAs to evaluate and review their school-fee policies and take corrective action.
HB250 goes in effect Jan. 2020.
Once made aware of the need to review their school-fee policies, Canyons Board of Education began studying Canyons’ fee structures almost immediately, Haney said.
“Principals, coaches, advisors, administrators and board members diligently studied the district’s fee structure, discussed how improvements could be made, and reviewed what could be done to realign to the new requirements,” he said about their travel policy that was approved May 7. “One of the overarching guiding principles is how to implement fee waivers for students according to the law and within the district's budget.”
And if LEAs don’t comply?
“We will work with the school districts to be aligned,” Dayley said. “Basically, they’d have to ignore us for two years and if they do, then the last resort would be withholding of funds, but I don’t foresee that. We want to help students prepare and meet the goals of Utah’s education system. We want the same right for all students as the court stated back 25 years ago, but now there’s more clarification and ways to support involvement so all programs can be made accessible to students.”