Monday, April 03, 2006

Illegal Fees Charged in School

After over 2 years of prompting, the paper at my school finally wrote a story about the illegal "lab fees" that students pay for several classes--and activities--at the school at which I teach.

Frankly, I was disappointed in the article. I'd think that catching your school doing something blatantly illegal would be a big deal to a budding journalist--this is even better than rats in the proverbial rats in the cafeteria--but the article was tepid at best. We're clearly violating state law; I provided them with several pages of documents from the state Department of Education, documents which clearly identify what schools can and cannot charge for. Yet, most of the article focused on what classes would have to be cancelled if we stopped breaking the law. So much for thinking outside the box.

I'll post a link if they ever publish the newspaper online, as was done in the past.

The school paper was distributed last Friday. Yesterday, the major Sacramento newspaper had a prominently placed story (front page of the local Metro section) about the very same issue, illegal fees, in a nearby district. The article in the Sacramento newspaper was more pointed than the one in my school paper, a fact that genuinely distresses me. These kids are being treated illegally, and they barely give a shrug!

How do I know this is illegal? I checked with the legal department of the state Department of Education, which sent me a "fiscal advisory" memorandum, several pages long, outlining what schools can charge for and what they cannot. It seemed pretty clear.

Here's the Sacramento newspaper article:

Booster club, parent battle in Folsom

Mother gets back the $4,000 she paid for band participation in a fight with big implications.

By Walter Yost -- Bee Staff Writer

Published 3:15 am PDT Sunday, April 2, 2006
Story appeared in Metro section, Page B1


For the past three years, Donna Kinsella has argued that students shouldn't have to pay dues to participate in Folsom High School band programs.

In March, a Sacramento small claims court awarded Kinsella several thousand dollars in damages, an amount equal to what Kinsella has paid for her children to take part in the high school's various bands.

Kinsella's victory may have impact far beyond the approximately $4,000 she won. The school district is appealing her award and a Southern California legal group is interested in her case.

Potentially at stake are the donations or dues - depending on one's viewpoint - that public schools use to fund a raft of extracurricular activities.

"It's not about the money at all," Barry Vroom, president of the Folsom Music Boosters, said of the small claims court award.

"My personal concern is if it has ramifications for booster programs around the state," he said.

To Kinsella, the judge's decision is a vindication of her efforts to convince school officials at the district, county and state level that charging fees for extracurricular activities is illegal. She said she turned to the court system after no one else would help.

"It's about our rights and protecting our children's rights," the mother of three said. "We pay for our children's education in taxes. To bill us (for extracurricular activities) results in double taxation."

For the Folsom Cordova Unified School District and its music boosters, co-defendants in the case, the court judgment proves no such thing.

"It's our opinion that the judge did not review the state education code regarding this issue," said Mindy Nunes, assistant superintendent of administrative services for the district.

The booster organization, which helps support the nationally renowned music program, has maintained that what Kinsella calls dues are really voluntary contributions, necessary to help pay for field trips to music events.

The boosters and the school district have filed an appeal scheduled to be heard May 19 in Sacramento Superior Court.

"It is important for our image. We don't think we've done anything wrong," said Vroom, the boosters president.

"Without the boosters, the (music) program would be only two concerts per year. We now have at least four field trips per year and we put in thousands and thousand of dollars."

At issue is interpretation of education code sections referencing the authorization of student fees.

According to the co-defendants' trial brief, although the code stipulates that no child shall be prevented from making a field trip or excursion because of lack of sufficient funds, it further states "the governing board shall coordinate efforts of community service groups to supply funds for pupils in need of them."

The brief argues that the Folsom Music Boosters act as the safety net for the district by providing scholarships to any student unable or unwilling to pay for a field trip.

"The district can't provide those funds," Nunes said. "There are times when you have to charge for activities."

But Kinsella also cites state law to support her arguments.

"You cannot charge for curricular or extracurricular activities. You can only ask for voluntary donations," she said.

According to Kinsella, the boosters have made their payment notices look like mandatory bills, not donation requests. She cited the use of words such as "fees" and "dues" in the notices.

Vroom and Nunes said changes have been made to clarify the language by emphasizing the word "donations."

About 450 students are involved in Folsom High's music programs, which include a marching band and color guard, jazz band and jazz choir, orchestra, symphony and concert bands.

Vroom said no child has been denied participation in the music program because of an inability to pay and that in some cases scholarships have been provided.

Kinsella's case is being watched by Richard Ackerman, an attorney with the United States Justice Foundation, a conservative legal action organization based in Southern California.

The foundation has taken part in a number of actions against school districts over what it says are unconstitutional fees. Last year, Ackerman threatened to file a class-action lawsuit against the Folsom Cordova district on Kinsella's behalf.

Kinsella said this week she is no longer connected with Ackerman and has hired a local attorney to represent her.

In the meantime, despite Kinsella's award in small claims court, Vroom said no one else has asked the boosters for their money back.

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6 comments:

Miller Smith said...

We had this problem in Prince George's County public Schools where I teach chemistry several years ago. We were charging a $15.00 lab fee to cover lab equipment and supplies. A parent took to system to court and won-of course.

Now we do demonstrations with the $660 budget per year we have for 187 students. Students do labs on paper and no labs happen. At all.

I have taught chemistry for the last 5 years since we could not charge fees and have not had a single lab for students since. No money means no labs. Period. The system did not step up to cover the costs and I sure as hell won't spend MY money on labs, so we have none. At all. Ever.

And that's the way the public wants it.

Darren said...

That's sad, but it's preferable to breaking the law, in my book.

Heather said...

Even though I am a student with these same fees, I feel that teachers have to charge money for some programs, like the music program, because kids rent out instruments from schools and they go on these trips for a fraction of the cost. Do you think that money just appears?!?! If the teacher doesn't apply some fees, they can't run their program effectively because the districts under-fund these extra currecular activities many kids love to participate in.
E-Mail me at "trumpetgal_1@yahoo.com" if you want to reply.

Darren said...

I guess the fact that it's illegal never enters into the equation?

The reason it's illegal here in California is simple. Once we create a stratified education system, one for the haves and one for the have-nots, we've doomed ourselves to accepting and maintaining a situation that is unjust.

Are you ok with that?

Miller Smith said...

NOt only should fees be banned, but so to should private donations to specific schools. Most of the rich schools in my system get all sorts of private donations from parents that provide programs for all t he rich kids. Poor schools get little or nothing in the way of donations.

All donations should be taken by the central office and equally distributed. Of course this will bring the donations to near zero, but we can't be unjust.

Now we have more and more rich parents just moving their kids out of the system altogether. In my county only 60% of the school age children attend a public school. Every time we try to raise taxes for the school system we lose at the ballot box or in the county government as the rich people say they already pay taxes for a system they don't use and they out-vote the poor folks.

In cases where the poor folks get a critical mass to vote higher taxes the dang rich folks move out of the district and take their money with them. In my county we can't even get businesses to locate here. Our taxes are higher than the rich districts so the businesses go there. Our poor go to the rich districts to shop leaving what little money they have to fund the rich kid's education.

When we work for "social justice" the economics of self interest will cause more suffering for the poor. Personal responsibility is seen as racist or elitist. The concept of "don't have what you cna't feed" seem not to even occur to the poor. Ther seem to be an attitude that we have the right to have others pay for our "choices."

I do affirmative action grading in my classes. This is justice at the personal level. The white kids understand. They really do.

donna said...

I am Donna Kinsella who sued the Folsom Cordova School district and Folsom Music Boosters for unlawfully billing us for our children to participate in band activities. There is much more to this case than the media prints. Not only were we billed illegally but myself and a certified public accountant reveiwed the music boosters books to find the music teacher and his stay home wife are paying themselves a handsome salary. We found other activities which I reported to the state Attorney General's office and I have the letters to prove they are investigating the boosters financial records. It's not just that we were billed illegally it is also what has been done with the money. According to the Boosters own 990 2003 tax return form they netted $114,000 from fundraisers alone, the travel and trip fees for the children were $86,000, leaving them a profit. Last year they billed $541 for marching band per student, (118 students) and $785 for jazz band with about (50 students), this on top of their fundraisers. I am so tired of hearing the schools don't have enough money, if you have watched John Stossel's reports on our U.S. educational system, you might view things differently. Parents need to get back control of ours schools, they are taking advantage of people's ignorance. We pay for our children's education in our taxes and to bill parents for activities results in a double taxation. The district and boosters have appealed my first victory in small claims because they can afford the taxpayer money for attorney fees. I on the other hand have to pay out of my pocket my attorney fees. I sued only for my $4,072 and I have invested way more than that. This is about protecting our children's rights to a free education.