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Published in Print: June 9, 2004, as New Oregon Law Targets Students’ Debts

New Oregon Law Targets Students’ Debts

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Oregon parents who are not paying their children’s school fees might regret it come the end of the 2004-05 school year, when the schools withhold their children’s report cards or diplomas.

A new state law, which goes into effect July 1, will require school districts in Oregon to hold on to the grade report, diploma, and other school records of any student who owes $50 or more to the district for anything from lost books to unpaid activity fees. The law also says that districts may impose the same penalties on students who owe less than $50. The law leaves it up to the districts to decide how to collect the money when the debt goes over $50, but allows them to hire collection agencies to pursue overdue balances.

John Marshall, the director of legislative services for the Oregon state board of education, said the law was the idea of Rep. Vic Backlund, the Republican who chairs the House education committee.

"[He] was a longtime teacher and coach in Salem, [Ore.], and he had a principal that suggested to him that there were a lot of students that damaged the school by not returning the money that they owed," Mr. Marshall said.

According to the legislation, before pursuing the collection of student debts by withholding school records and diplomas, districts must give the students and their parents written and oral notice of the districts’ intention to do so.

Mr. Marshall said legal provisions have always allowed districts to take action in cases where students were not paying their fees. "But now the new law will require the school to be more aggressive and demand this money," he said.

Not a Punishment

Mr. Marshall said legislators decided to write a state law because they believed there needed to be uniformity in enforcing debt collection. "Now all districts are informed that there is a uniform policy that is being implemented," he said.

Even though some flexibility is allowed on how to implement the policy, districts will be expected to follow the law, Mr. Marshall said.

Gene Evans, the communication director of Oregon’s department of education, said it will be the district’s responsibility to implement this law, but it is up to the schools themselves to decide how to do it.

"This will help the school to receive the money which they need back, and that is very important in those days of declining resources," Mr. Marshall said. "And it will also educate [students]—it teaches individual responsibility."

Principal Carol Kemhus of Oregon City High School supports the new law, particularly because fees for sports and other activities are increasingly becoming a fact of school life.

"We’re in a crisis in Oregon City," she said. "It’s really tough, and I believe in a comprehensive education that includes sports, and in order for that to happen, we need to share the costs."

The principal said that the 2,200-student school has for many years collected late fees. Under the new law, however, instead of allowing debt to accumulate for several years until graduation day, the school will collect individual debt at the end of each school year.

"We have about $70,000 in debt—that’s a teacher-and-a-half that we can use here," Ms. Kemhus said. She said that the debt resulted, for example, from students’ loss of textbooks, which have an average value of $60; unpaid fees for extracurricular activities, such as sports that cost $100 per season; and unpaid lab fees of $10 to $20.

"We don’t want to punish anyone," Ms. Kemhus said. "We’re trying to teach something about economical responsibilities and how to be responsible to our community." When students lose their books, she said, it should not be up to taxpayers to pay for them.

Along with the demands of the law, there are some exceptions.

A district may adopt policies that allow it to waive all or a portion of the debt owed to the school because of special circumstances. In an instance when the parents cannot pay the debt, or when paying it might affect the health or security of the student, the school might not claim the money.

"We give kids opportunities to work it off. We put several different strategies in place in order to help them. We even offer some scholarships," Ms. Kemhus added.

Vol. 23, Issue 39, Page 22

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