Watchdog: Graduation means pomp and circumstance and fees

/ 19 May 2012 / jennifer

Debra O’Connor, Pioneer Press, May 19, 2012 –

This spring, a letter sent to parents from Red Wing High School admonished seniors to forgo “skip day” and gave details about the school’s upcoming graduation ceremony. Plus, principal Beth Borgen reminded families that they were responsible for paying $25 for caps and gowns. Anyone in a “hardship situation” was instructed to contact the principal, who keeps a few spare ones in a closet.

A Red Wing parent passed the letter on to the Watchdog — along with the law stating that districts cannot require graduates to buy caps and gowns. Even though schools have the option of charging fees covering other graduation-related fees such as security, programs and decorations, regalia is a specific no-no.

Red Wing seniors also are required to pay an additional $25 graduation fee, and the principal’s letter pointed out that if they don’t, they won’t be allowed to participate in commencement.

That might seem harsh, but it’s legal and it’s common. In a survey of 20 local school districts, the Watchdog found about two-thirds of the high schools charge extra to walk across a stage to receive a diploma (see chart on Page 4A). Fees range from $10 per student at Coon Rapids High School to $50 per student at Mahtomedi High School. In some districts, the fee is framed as a request for a donation. But in others, it’s a requirement: Graduates who don’t pay are shut out unless they plead poverty and ask for a waiver.

As a consumer advocate, the Watchdog questions the practice of charging a fee on graduation from a public school.

On the other hand, some districts make a strong case for fees: Their budgets are stressed in part because the state of Minnesota has borrowed money from them to balance the state budget. And savvy districts know that putting on a nice event is of great importance to students and their families.

“We have expenses that exceed what we can cover, basically,” said Mark Parr, director of secondary education in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district. “Every high school has something different that they have to have. Some need to rent equipment, like sound equipment or stage equipment. We have to pay for supervision, helping manage the kids get through the line. At Rosemount High School, we have the police department help to park cars” because of a lack of parking spaces.

In 1994, when principal Stephen Degenaar first arrived at Apple Valley High School, there were no graduation fees — or parking fees, athletics fees or arts fees. In 1995, a $7 fee was tacked onto graduation.

He expects this year’s Apple Valley graduation ceremony to cost about $24,500. The costs are myriad — from the usual, such as programs, sound equipment and security, to the more arcane, like stipends for students who videotape the ceremony, medallions for the top 10 students and American Sign Language interpreters. Students are expected to pay $40 each, raising about $16,200 — the cost of everything but the caps, gowns and diplomas.

Public education is supposed to be free, and that should include the graduation ceremony, said Mary Cecconi, a former Stillwater school board member who is now executive director of Parents United for Public Schools, an organization concerned with policy and funding in Minnesota schools. The notion of barring graduates from the ceremony unless they pay a fee is unacceptable, she said.

“This is the pinnacle. I think we should do everything we can to help students celebrate,” she said.

To Cecconi, the graduation fee is a symptom of a bigger problem, as families in many districts face charges all the way through high school. If their children take advantage of all their schools have to offer, including sports, theater and music, the extra cost could add up to thousands of dollars per family. Even those families who don’t qualify for low-income waivers may still find it difficult to pay fees and buy decent groceries, she said.

The state’s biggest district, Anoka-Hennepin, has 3,000 graduates this year, and with no graduation fees, it is leaving potentially $100,000 on the table. But the district has decided to absorb the extra cost in its regular budget, said Jeff McGonigal, associate superintendent of the district’s high schools.

“One of the advantages of being large is economy of scale,” he said. For example, three of the district’s five high schools graduate on the same day in successive ceremonies at Mariucci Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.

“We think we have very nice ceremonies. We have enough resources to make that happen without having to ask for contributions,” McGonigal said. “We’re cost-conscious on everything we’re doing because we have to work within our budgets.”

There is a slight exception to the district’s policy: Coon Rapids High School charges a $10 fee that goes for the ceremony’s decorations plus the senior picnic.

As far back as anyone can remember, St. Paul hasn’t charged a graduation fee, either. More than seven in 10 seniors qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and probably would qualify for a waiver if a fee were charged. For caps, gowns and tassels, the district goes the disposable route, paying approximately $30,000 for regalia intended for one-time use.

No district surveyed except Red Wing required all students to pay for cap and gown. Principal Borgen told the Watchdog that since Red Wing students are purchasing their own caps and gowns and therefore can keep them, that’s OK by law.

And indeed districts are allowed to charge fees for certain things students can take home. But since the law went on the books in 1974, districts must offer a free cap-and-gown option for all students. So even though Red Wing keeps a few spares for poor students, that doesn’t meet the legal requirements.

On Wednesday, May 15, the district sent out a second letter to parents because it has changed its policy to conform with state statute: If graduates return their caps and gowns following the ceremony, they’ll get refunds.

“I appreciate the fact that you brought this issue up to our attention,” Red Wing Superintendent Karsten Anderson told the Watchdog.

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Here’s what the Minnesota Department of Education says:

If the district clearly informs pupils prior to graduation that they are not required to purchase the cap, gown, tassel or the diploma cover, but they may purchase those items to keep at their option, then those fees may be authorized. In those situations, at the end of the ceremony, the pupil could then return the diploma cover and the cap and gown without charge. Legal Authority: Minn. Stat. 123B.37, Subd. 1 (4); Minn. Stat. 123B.36, Subd. 1 (b) (1) and (5).

And districts can’t wield the diploma as a way to get students to pay up, says the same statute, Subd. 2: Boards shall not withhold grades or diplomas for nonpayment of student fees.

Districts can, however, try to collect payments in other, legal ways.