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Board has heated debate on graduation fees

Farmington School Board members discussed the graduation fee and who should pay in a heated debate Monday, June 26.

Board member Melissa Sauser requested in May to look into the graduation fee. Sauser said she heard community members were unhappy about the cost for graduation.

Jane Houska, district finance director, explained the history of the $45 graduation ceremony fee.

"It is no different than an event like when you go to a basketball game or a wrestling meet or football game, you are going to pay an event fee," Houska said.

Sauser said she wanted to see how the district could cover the cost instead.

"I look at it as the culmination of their academic career in our district, and it happens once in their 13 years of their student's life and their child's and the students' academic success is that night," Sauser said of graduation.

The $45 district grad fee has not been increased and has been in place for years in Farmington, Houska said.

Most schools charge a grad fee ranging from $25 to $60, Houska said. Two schools that do not charge grade fees may be rethinking that policy because they will be needing to close a budget gap, she said.

"There is no one who is denied the graduation ceremony if they so choose to and want to participate in it, and there are ways in place to assist those who want to participate in this event," Houska said.

The overall Farmington district graduation ceremony price tag ranges from $15,000 to $25,000. The differing cost variables depend on number graduating students and the ceremony venue. Hosting an outdoor graduation is more expensive because more staff are needed to supervise and assist guests at a larger venue and there is a need to rent equipment.

"Almost the entire cost for the event is an event fee paid for by families, and there is a nominal fee items the district pays for under state statute," Houska said.

Because of growing graduating student bodies that are expected to exceed 500 students in a couple years, there may be a need to look for an off-site graduation venue away from Farmington High School.

Quoting how the cost was $10,000 to host this year's prom at Target Field, Houska said other grad venues to consider could include Roy Wilkins Auditorium or Mariucci Arena.

Farmington Principal Jason Berg said one school that opted to host graduation off site lost control of the day and time and the graduation was at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. Another school that had graduation at Roy Wilkins paid $11,000.

"Then all of the participants and those who are going to watch and families are going to have to pay for parking," Houska said. In addition, the district may need to look at how to transport students to the off-site venue.

One way to help more community take part and see more events like graduation, plays and concerts may be for the board to invest in equipment to make live streaming a way for more eyes to watch student events.

Houska encouraged the school board review the live streaming option that may cost $30,000 to $35,000 for equipment.

"I think with some bond dollars we have, this is the perfect opportunity to put that system into place not only for graduation, but for our plays, band concerts, choir concerts and what a great opportunity to share with all of our community members," Houska said.

Heated debate

Sauser thanked Houska for the grad fee information, adding how she would have preferred to have seen the information prior to the meeting.

Sauser asked again what was included in the $15,000 to $20,000 cost. Houska said it covers paying custodians, supervisory staff and rental equipment if graduation is needed to hosted outdoors.

"I think the one thing we can budget should be graduation and regardless of where the graduation is — that is negotiable," Sauser said.

Sauser said state law prohibits the district from charging for a diploma.

"I am not saying we are breaking the rules here but I do think it is kind of a gray area when you ask people," she said. "I think we are just kind of skirting it and we are within the law we are fine, but it is the one thing that we should be able to afford."

Board member Julie Singewald said graduating seniors do not actually receive their graduation certificates at the ceremony, but are given them after the graduation ceremony.

"The thing I am trying to articulate here is when you start bringing up legal issues, there is no legal issue and I don't want you bullying a decision and how I am interpreting or about our administration, based on throwing around legal things when they aren't even in play in this situation," Singewald said.

Sauser said she did not think she is acting in a bullying way, but was responding after it was brought to her attention about the graduation fees.

"I do think it is a great concept but I don't know if it is something we should be engaging in at this point," Board Chair Jake Cordes said.

Sauser made a motion to cover graduation out of next year's budget. Cordes asked for a second motion and repeated that request three times with no response.

District Superintendent Jay Haugen reminded the board it must pass the budget. Defending his staff, Haugen said the district finance director has a lot on her plate and she did indeed gather the pieces of information to answer the grad ceremony questions.

"We have had this item for over a decade and we have never raised it and we have never received a call," Haugen said.

Haugen said the district staff was unaware that this issue would be up for a vote prior to the adoption of next year's budget.

"We can absolutely bring this back but only if you want to talk about it," Haugen said.

Sauser ended up withdrawing the motion so the board could more deeply discuss the graduation fee and the possibility of covering this cost with a budget amendment.