High schools sports fees questioned
Many sports in the Placer Union High School District hang in the balance.
The cause is two-fold. The American Civil Liberties Union began cracking down last year on public school districts in the state of California for charging students to participate in athletics. That combined with an already shrinking budget, means several programs may not recieve the funding they need to continue next year, according to Dave Horsey, Placer Union High School District superintendent.
A civil grand jury investigation conducted in San Diego last June found the San Diego Unified School District was charging students for school-related expenses and athletics. Those findings led to a closer investigation of public school districts across the state. In a preliminary investigation, the ACLU found 40 school districts in violation of pay-to-play practices. The Placer Union High School District was among them.
“As a result we ended up filing litigation with the state,” said ACLU of Southern California staff attorney David Sapp. “It was for the widespread and uninhibited status quo of ignoring consistiutional regulations. The state has the ultimate responsibility.”
Asking public school students to pay for school-related expenses or athletics violates the California State Constitution. A court ruling in 1984 in the case Hartzell vs. Conner established that underfunding for public schools did not justify students being charged for athletics participation.
Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird articulated the opinion of the California Supreme Court in her ruling, “Accordingly, this court holds that all educational activities curricular or extracurricular ffered to students by school districts fall within the free school guarantee,” Bird said. “Once the community has decided that a particular educational program is important enough to be offered by its public schools, a student's participation in that program cannot be made to depend upon his or her family's decision whether to pay a fee or buy a toaster.”
For years though, the state has looked the other way as many schools have charged students despite the law.
Facing a tough reality
As part of a settlement to the ACLU lawsuit under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger, the state issued a letter in December to all of the school districts in California asking them to stop pay-to-play practices. Horsey said he moved quickly to carry that out in the Placer Union High School District.
While district officials say they never denied participation based on lack of funds, they did charge fees to partcipate in many sports. With some sports like cheerleading, skiing and snowboarding costing upward of $1,000 or more per student, most of the responsibility falls on families to pay.
According to Horsey, the criteria for a student getting those fees waived was being on free and reduced lunch. Now the schools district can’t use criteria to determine which students have to pay and which don’t. While ending pay-to-play practices means every student will be able to participate in the sports that are offered, it also places new regulations on how the school can ask for payment. If a team lacks funding for even one participant, it can be cut.
“This spring term we are coming up short. Will the board have to say we are not going to offer this sport? That’s a very real possibility,” Horsey said. “We are going to use this spring semester as a barometer.”
Horsey said that while the community has stepped up donations, the district also has less money to contribute to athletics.
“We are operating at $6 million less, yet we open our doors every day and do a good job. But there is the stuff people don’t see because their kids are doing their homework and getting a good education — the class sizes are larger, no more mock trial or academic decathalon,” Horsey said.
For the past three years the district has cut its budget by 18 percent every year.
“If I was a business, I would have declared bankruptcy and reorganized myself. But we are a school district we can’t do that,” Horsey said. “We are reorganizing as we go along.”
Even with a $900,000 athletics budget from the district and football and basketball gates that go into the general fund, many sports come up short without substantial donations from individual participants. The district pays for many coaches and officials, reconditions football helmets, safety equipment and maintains fields to California Interscholastic Federation standards. After that, teams are on their own for things like transportation, camps, lift tickets, additional clothing and equipment.
Counting the Cost
The Colfax High snowboard team won the California Nevada Interscholastic Ski and Snowboard Federation state championship this year, but faces not even existing next year.
Former Colfax snowboard coach Jack Morgan, who retired this season after 20 years as a coach in the district, said the team struggled this year to raise enough money.
“The way we have been operating over the past 12-13 years won’t work,” Morgan said. “I have grave doubts about there being a team next year. I think it’s a shame. For some of them it keeps the spark alive in staying in school and being a part of this.”
Horsey said he agrees that athletics programs enhance the educational experience and even motivate many students to perform better in school.
“They are part of the kids’ comprehensive high school. Part of the whole climate, culture and sense of belonging. It strengthens their academics,” Horsey said. “You shouldn’t have to fundraise for ninth-grade English, but a lot of these extracurriculars are just as important. We need to look at different fundraising sources.”
If a sport at one school is eliminated, that would put the same sport at other schools in the district in jeopardy, according to Horsey.
“I want equal access for my students in the district,” Horsey said.
A lawsuit in limbo
Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration rejected the terms of the settlement by the previous administration, according to Sapp. As a result, on April 7, the ACLU filed litigation to sue the state of California again. Sapp said the ACLU is asking that the state create an enforcement system that is fast and carries punishments for offenders.
One of those punishments would include reimbursement with interest for students who were charged to participate in athletics. Schools that continue to make participation contingent on payment after that could risk having their state funds withheld.
Sapp emphasized that while there is often a fine line between fees and donations, collecting donations and informing the community about how much money is needed to keep a program running is legal. That may prove to be the saving grace for many sports.
“First and foremost we greatly appreciate and are very thankful for the donations and the support,” Horsey said. “We recognize that in light of these financial times, not only because of the ACLU lawsuit, co-currricular and athletics are in more and more jeapordy. They are going to require parent fundraisers to keep these programs running.”
Reach Sara Seyydin at firstname.lastname@example.org.
June 2010- civil grand jury investigates the San Diego Unified School District’s collection of illegal fees for academics and extracurricular activities, including athletics.
August 2010- The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego issues a letter to the San Diego Unified School District about the collection of these illegal fees.
The ACLU conducts a more systematic investigation to find more school districts charging for athletics. The preliminary investigation found 30 schools in violation of pay-to-learn and 40 in violation of pay-to-play.
October 2010- The ACLU files a lawsuit against the state of California on behalf of two plaintiffs from Orange County for not monitoring schools pay-to-learn and pay-to-play practices, asking for a new monitoring system to be put in place and penalties established for violators.
December 2010- The ACLU and the state of California reach a settlement under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. As part of the settlement the state issues a letter to all the high school districts in California, including the Placer Union High School District, to stop pay-to-learn and pay-to-play practices immediately.
December 2010- Placer Union High School District Superintendent Dave Horsey issues a letter to all of the schools in the district telling them to stop any pay-to-learn or pay-to-play violations.
April 7, 2011- The ACLU of Southern California files more litigation against the state after Gov. Jerry Brown’s office does not agree to the terms of the settlement decided by the previous administration.