Rhonda Thurman: A Few Facts About School Fees

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

I just want to share a few facts about school fees. On Monday, March 17, 2003 this notice was sent to all school board members and superintendents:

Subject: Attorney General Opinion

QUESTIONS

1. Do school fees authorized by a local board in accordance with Tenn. Code Ann 49-2-110 create a "debt" for the students when they are charged under Tenn. Code Ann. 49-1-302(a)(14) and Tenn. Admin. Rules, State Board of Education, 0520-1-3-03(13), so that a local school may withhold various enumerated documents, including report cards when the fees are not paid?

2. If the answer to the first question is no, what constitutes a (debt) under Tenn. Code Ann 49-1-302(a)(14)?

OPINIONS

1. School systems may request but not require payment of "school fees." Thus failure to pay the requested fee cannot be a debt because it is not owed.

2. A debt under Tenn. Code Ann. 49-1-302(a)(14) and Tenn. Code Administration Rules, State Board of Education, 0520-1-3-03(13), could include non-"school fee" charges, such as a fee for an extracurricular student activity occurring outside the regular school day, library fines for late-returned books, parking or traffic fines, and reasonable charges for lost or destroyed textbooks.

The result of this Attorney General opinion is we will no longer hold report cards for unpaid school fees, however we many continue to hold report cards for debts owed to schools as defined in the opinion. An example of extracurricular student activity occurring outside the regular school day that would be considered a school debt is cost for optional trips, sports, clubs, or social events. Other examples of school debts would be lunch charges, daycare services, school pictures ordered by student, parking fines, and reasonable charges for lost or destroyed textbooks.

Respectfully Yours,
Dale Isabell, CPA, CGFM
Chief Financial Officer
Hamilton County Department of Education

Two years after this memo was sent to all schools, I am still getting reports of students being punished for nonpayment of fees. Already this year I have a report that one student was refused a locker for not paying a school fee. Another was refused a parking space because they had not paid a student fee even though they were prepared to pay for the parking permit.

Last year, I received reports that one school was giving top lockers to students who paid fees and bottom lockers to students who did not. Many parents e-mailed to say their students were having to carry all of their books and jackets to class because they had not paid fees.

Students in the past have been given brightly colored slips of paper in lieu of report cards in front of classmates. Students in elementary have had their names called out in front of classmates when fees are not paid. Even after some schools were ordered to release report cards, the students who had not paid fees were called in front of the class and stickers stating what fees had not been paid were placed on their report cards.

One elementary school parent called last year to say that her daughter was not going to receive an assignment book unless she paid her student fee. The teacher went on to say that without an assignment book her daughter would not get her homework assignments. The mother asked how much the assignment book was and she was told $5. She offered to pay for the book but was told she could not pay for the book only, she had to pay the entire $55.

My two favorite fee fiascoes:

This was a letter sent home by an algebra teacher to high school parents, and I quote, "Each student will be required to pay a $5 per semester fee in order to pay for the additional paper, scantron forms, and supplies needed for printers. Students who pay the full $10 before the first test will have 10 bonus points added to their first test score."

The Tennessee Department of Education says fees are the equivalent of a fundraiser. The Tennessee Internal School Uniform Accounting Policy Manual states, "Activities and events organized to raise funds for either the student body as a whole or for a special group or segment of the student body shall be conducted on a voluntary basis only. Students who do not participate in such activities or events shall not be punished or discriminated in any way. Likewise, a student's grade shall not be affected as a direct result of participation in, or lack of participation in, any fundraising activities or events."

This is taken from a letter written by a principal, after a mother went to the state when her daughter was refused a locker.

"You are correct in that it is illegal to force students to pay fees. I am well aware of that, and we never hold report cards or student records based on nonpayment of the voluntary fee. However, nowhere in state law does it require me to provide a locker for each student. That is strictly optional. Literally the lockers are the property of the school and may be rented to the students. For this reason we require a minimum rental fee of $2 for one year of locker usage.... During the first two weeks of school, lockers will be assigned only to students who have paid at least $25 towards their school fees...The reason we ask for a minimum of $25 from all other students is simple. The locker is the one and only reason that most students will ask their parents to pay a portion or all of their fees. If we simply took $2 from every student, we would have no more than $1,200 in fees to budget for this school year, and few hopes that the students would continue to ask their parents. Many parents with the best intentions would simply not remember to pay any more towards the school fees once the student stops asking about a locker! Let me say quickly that during these first two weeks we in no way punish students who do not have a locker. They may take their backpacks to every class. They may take their jackets and coats to every class. Once the first two weeks are over....we will accept $2 from any student and assign a locker accordingly. Then and only then will students face any consequences for bringing bookbags or coats to class.
I hope you realize that we are in no way forcing you to pay fees or punish your daughter. If she chooses to rent a locker, she simply needs to pay $2 and she will be assigned on immediately...If she choses not to rent a locker, that is fine. Your family will pay no money to the school and there will be no consequences to your child. However, she will have to leave her bookbag at home and arrangements will need to be made in the winter since coats are not allowed in the building."

Aren't you glad this principal was "in no way punishing" this student? Aren't you glad there will be "no consequences" in one paragraph and then "consequences" in another?
What about the idea that the lockers belong to the "school"? Just exactly who would the "school" be? Taxpayers maybe? Taxpayers already own lockers. Why do they have to "rent" them?

This principal is right in saying "nowhere in state law does it require me to provide a locker for each student." The principal does not have to provide lockers, the taxpayers already have.
TCA code 49-2-110(11) (c): "The school shall not require any student to pay a fee to the school for any purpose, except as authorized by the board of education, and no fees or tuitions shall be required of any student as a condition to attending the public school, or using its equipment while receiving educational training."

If anyone has a child who is being embarrassed, punished or harrassed in any way because fees have not been paid, please contact me. I will be glad to send you the Attorney General opinion.

Parents wishing to pay school fees can pay them. They can even pay more if they wish. However, those who chose not to pay should not have to be in fear that their child will be embarrassed or punished at school.

Rhonda Thurman
Rthrm@aol.com


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