‘We’re trying to be as reasonable as we can’; Washington County School District proposes school fee changes

Discussion during the public hearing about changes in the school fee schedule, St. George, Utah, Feb. 24, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — The Washington County School District held its first public hearing Monday night to discuss possible changes in the school fee schedule for the 2020-2021 school year.

Business director for the district, Brent Bills, led the discussion, and around five people were present for the hearing.

Some of the changes had to do with clarifying language in the draft, such as changing “costume” to “apparel”.

Other changes were increases in fees, including:

  • Food class for ninth grade is increased from $5 to $15.
  • Engineering is increased from  $10 to 35.
  • Sewing is increased from $10 to $15.
  • Co-curricular apparel is increased from $25 up to $50.

New fees were also added, including:

  • $15 for computer-aided design class.
  • $30 for dance class (which would be for the dance company, but also open to others and include some after-hours participation).
  • $20 for play participation.
  • $50 for the Science Olympiad.
  • $50 for uniform rentals (isolated to basketball, baseball, football and softball).
  • $66 for nonresident college readiness test.
  • $14 for nonresident testing participation fee.

Another major change proposed in the school fee schedule is making the AP test fee of $94 a waivable fee, so no student feels deterred from taking this test due to financial reasons.

“We heard from the state office that by not waiving the AP test … that was having a negative effect on low-income students that … we need to increase the number of minority students taking the test,” Bills said.

Washington County School District Business Director Brent Bills discusses the fee schedule during the hearing, St. George, Utah, Feb. 24, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Part of what prompted these changes had to do with a class-action lawsuit filed against the Utah State Board of Education in the mid-1990s over the state’s uneven fee policy. The board lost the lawsuit and was issued a permanent injunction.

Following the lawsuit, Utah districts did make some change, but not enough to fully comply with the mandate, Bills said. About two years ago, the legislature, the state office and the state’s auditor’s office all performed audits on school fees, which culled attention to the needed change; and last year, legislators passed a rule on school fees.

As a result of the big change, the district has been working to be in full compliance with the new rule, Steven Dunham, district communications director, said.

“We’ve had a couple years to get into compliance, and we started last year,” Dunham said. “We put together a whole new fee schedule so that we would be ahead of the game, knowing that if we did it a year early, we’d have forgiveness if there were any mistakes.”

Under the new law, if a school is found to be not compliant, the board could tell them they aren’t allowed to charge fees at all.

In the past, school fees, such as spirit packs, might have an extra $50 leftover, which could then be used to offset other expenses. The spending plan has to be the exact amount.

Washington County School District board members during the hearing, St. George, Utah, Feb. 24, 2020 | Photo by Aspen Stoddard, St. George News

Some schools were charging fees that were not on the fee plan, and they were not fee-waiving fees that should have been. Under the new fee schedule, waivable fees will be those considered as part of the high school experience, such as school dances, driver’s education and graduation cap and gown.

In reference to all changes, consistency and keen consideration is key, District Superintendent Larry Bergeson said.

“If we need to fee-waive all of these things and we can’t cover them, we won’t be able to offer those programs. It’s that simple,” he said. “That hurts kids. We’ve explained this to them. So we’re trying to be as reasonable as we can, only charge what we have to charge, and still cover the cost of the program.”

A challenge Southern Utah students face that is unique to other schools in the state is being the farthest away from Salt Lake City, where many events are held, Bergeson said, which needs to be taken into consideration.

In the some 40 years of working in education, both in and out of state, Bergeson said he’s “never seen a kid not being able to participate if they want to. We find a way. Coaches, advisors, teachers, principals … we find a way.”

The second public hearing will be on March 10, and the board will make a motion on the school fee schedule March 23. All of this is being done in advance, Dunham said, so any necessary adjustments can be made before Jan. 1, 2021, at which time the law will go into full effect.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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