Limit proposed for collecting K-12 student debts

Limit proposed for collecting K-12 student debts

(Calif.) School administrators are watching with some concern the advance of legislation that would greatly diminish their ability to collect debts owed by students.

AB 1974 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez-Fletcher, D-San Diego, would prohibit local educational agencies from withholding grades, transcripts or a diploma because of an overdue bill. The measure would also prohibit schools from denying students from participating in after-school programs and sports because of money owed.

Use of a debt collection agency by schools would also be outlawed.

School officials worry that the bill will remove all leverage they might have to get parents and students to comply with needed service fees but  Gonzalez-Fletcher said the existing system puts too much of a burden on low-income families.

Currently, LEAs are prohibited from imposing fees on any activity that might be considered an “integral fundamental” part of education. But fees can be imposed for specific purposes, such as field trips or replacement costs for books or other school property that has been damaged by a student.

LEAs, however, must be considerate about charging fees on families that can’t afford the expense. For instance, a district can charge a transportation fee for a field trip but must also provide a waiver for low-income students.

“In general, existing law attempts to strike a balance between the ability of a district to assess those fees that are not prohibited and the need to avoid imposing a financial burden on families that cannot afford them,” a staff analysis on AB 1974 said.

The issue comes forward as a result of news reports earlier this year from the Voice of San Diego, which found that San Diego Unified had referred nearly 400 parents to the district’s collection agency for debts that ranged between $40 and $500.

Most of the debts owed were related to the district’s annual fee for home-to-school busing.

“In the vast majority of cases, parents fall behind on their kids’ school-bus fees because they’re struggling financially,” she said in a statement. “It only makes matters worse when a school sends a past-due bill to a debt collector. It impacts the parents’ credit rating, which creates all sorts of other hardships. It’s totally counterproductive.”

According to the district, however, almost 10,000 students were provided transportation services in 2016-17 and only 936 students were charged a fee.

The district also said that between 2010 and 2016, unpaid transportation fees totaled close to $700,000—money that otherwise would be used to support educational services.

Although no school group has formally come out against the bill, the staff analysis suggested that the major objection to the bill is that it removes all recourse the district has not only to collect debt for student fees, but also in the case of vandalism or theft.

“The impact of this bill will be that future students will go without technological equipment and tools, athletic and/or activity materials, and updated educational resources should LEAs experience an increase [sic] challenge to recall school property or collect payments for services rendered,” staff reported.

The bill was approved in March by the Assembly Education Committee and is scheduled for review this week by the Appropriations Committee, which Gonzalez-Fletcher chairs.

Staff has suggested that the bill be amended to exclude theft and vandalism from the debt collection prohibition.