Nan Austin

School is free, but parents still asked to pitch in

Parents helping at school get far more than they give in understanding their child’s day and helping little Noah or Sophia (the most popular names of 2013) get the most out of school.

That said, parents cannot be compelled to volunteer their time or pitch in their pennies. An advisory issued by the California Department of Education this year lays out that no public school can require parent participation or charge fees, not even charter schools.

“A fee waiver policy shall not make a fee permissible,” the CDE statement quotes from Education Code. The prohibition applies to all school educational activities. That includes supplies needed in academic, art and career classes, PE clothes, and caps and gowns for graduation.

It does, however, allow schools to request contributions, participation in fundraisers and classroom volunteering. The line in the sand appears to be barring kids from joining in if parents do not ante up.

Digging into the details, however, leads to a number of areas where schools can charge. Bus rides to school, for example, are not seen as integral to the educational program and therefore schools can charge for those. None around here do, but in the spring of 2013, a number of school boards – including Modesto City Schools – passed resolutions saying they might.

Schools can charge for outdoor science camp programs, field trips and after-school programs, so long as there is a hardship exemption. They can have a transcript fee (after two free ones) for teens applying to colleges. Shop classes can have students pay for materials for creations they plan to take home, but not for standard training projects.

In practice, schools try to avoid putting paywalls in front of activities. The hassle and hazards of collecting cash make them problematic, for one. Where a singular activity calls for extra money, a parent club or class fundraising often fills the bill.

Auditors, however, take a dim view of how most fundraising is handled. In the annual reports every school district is required to file, most I’ve seen this year have taken the district to task for failings in student body fund record-keeping.

The most common errors cited:

▪ Long delays between raising the money and putting it in the bank: It raises questions. Did that bag of cash just sit in someone’s trunk for three weeks or did it take a detour along the way?

▪ Lack of cash receipts and accounting: Where books are bought at a book fair, or orders taken from a catalog sale, there is at least a bill to give a hint at what should have been raised. Donated food sold at breakneck speed during athletic events just ends up as fistfuls of dollars.

But fundraising does not have to be the Wild West, even with high-turnover volunteer groups.

California State PTA procedures lay out simple, effective ways to track cash and make sure money given for a school activity ends up doing just that. It boils down to having two people count the cash and sign off on a count sheet; two people deposit it; two officers add up the receipts and pay the bills, and everyone is told what was made and how it was spent.

Volunteering at my kids’ schools for everything from cookie dough sales to flipping omelets, double-tracking every penny got ingrained in the culture. We planned extra time and people for it. Why raise questions about our hard work?

Also, while student body officers do not have to worry about tax filings, parent group officers do, every year, or risk losing the group’s tax-exempt status. Potential donors who want to check the tax status of local organizations can do so at www.irs.gov.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.

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