By Richard Irwin, Staff Writer
Walnut Valley Unified has agreed to refund some athletic fees charged to students and families at Diamond Bar High School. The action comes after a formal complaint was filed by Kevin and Beth House with the California Department of Education.
The department agreed with the Diamond Bar family that fees charged in the football, wrestling and baseball programs were impermissible under state law.
In its rulings, the CDE notes that participation on a high school football team is an educational activity that must be free. If participation in a summer football camp is a condition of participation on the school’s football team during the regular school year, then the summer camp must also be free.
It disagreed with the district’s conclusion that the summer camp was recreational rather than educational.
The district also claimed the $100 payment for the camp and the $135 required for camp clothing and accessories were voluntary donations. But, the state found that while the 2014 summer camp form changed the word “fee” to “donation,” the camp was nevertheless described as “mandatory” and students were informed that in order to receive their uniform for camp, they must show proof of payment.
“A reasonable parent would believe that paying for and participating in the summer camp was a condition of participation on the team during the school year,” the CDE concluded.
But the CDE found that since the summer wrestling camp was not a condition of participation on the wrestling team during the regular school year, that fee was permissible.
The House complaint also addressed “spirit packs” bought by students. Walnut Valley said the spirit packs weren’t required purchases. It said it provides all necessary uniforms for football, wrestling and baseball, whether a uniform package was purchased or not.
The CDE determined that the evidence showed that in order to receive their football, wrestling and baseball uniforms, students were instructed to show proof of payment in violation of the Education Code. It noted that the availability of a fee waiver does not make the fee permissible.
Football’s summer spirit pack totaled $155, while the season’s spirit pack cost $222 for varsity players and $195 for other players. Wrestling spirit packs cost $100, $250 for new players.
The Houses also paid $125 for a baseball package.
The CDE ordered the district to refund money paid for football, wrestling and baseball spirit packs from May 15, 2013 through May 15, 2014.
The House complaint also asked for a ruling on working bingos to raise money for the athletic teams. Football parents are asked to work bingo or donate $50 to “opt out.” The wrestling team asked for a opt out fee of $100, while the baseball team requested $100 to opt out each night or $200 total.
Walnut Valley said teams are allowed to solicit voluntary donations and that bingo participation is strongly urged but voluntary.
The Department of Education decided the evidence shows that parents were required to work bingo or pay an opt out fee as a condition for a student to participate on the football, wrestling and baseball teams. Therefore, participation in bingo fundraising was not voluntary in violation of the education code and any opt out fees were impermissible.
It ordered Walnut Valley to refund any bingo opt out fees from May 15, 2013 to May 15, 2014.
When the ruling was made at the end of September, Walnut Valley was given until Nov. 30 to remedy the situation, but the district decided to seek “clarification” first.
“It was important that we clarified this issue with the California Dept. of Education (CDE) because this is an important policy question facing most school districts in California and we wanted to make sure that we were appropriately and effectively implementing the law,” said Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Michelle Harold.
“With this guidance from CDE, we are taking several affirmative steps to change our policies, our practices, and our personnel’s approach to implementing the fee issues,” Harold explained.
On Dec. 12, Superintendent Robert Taylor sent out a letter to parents to offer refunds. He said the district will fully reimburse parents and students for the refunds ordered by the state.
Families must submit the refund form provided by the district by Jan. 23. Parents must also submit proof of payment, either a cancelled check or other evidence of payment.
If Walnut Valley doesn’t receive a form by Jan. 23, it will consider any payments to be a voluntary donation to the athletic programs.