In some instances, refunds may be allowable, but it can depend on the circumstances. Typically, refunds are more likely allowable when fees have been charged for specific events than when tied to donations raised by a group of students. Refunds are more likely prohibited when associated with student fundraising for a specific activity, because the funds in these instances are considered donations.
Chapter 9 of the FCMAT Associated Student Body Accounting Manual, Fraud Prevention Guide and Desk Reference discusses fees and refunds and explains the limited options when charging fees. The Manual states the following:
Based on a footnote in the Hartzell case, it is permissible to charge fees for school- or district-sponsored activities that are purely recreational rather than educational and at which attendance is optional, such as an after-school dance or a weekend athletic event . . .
Schools can always ask for voluntary donations of funds or property, and voluntary participation in fundraising activities, as long as a student’s ability to participate in a school activity, either curricular or extracurricular, is in no way determined based on whether a donation was made [EC Section 49011(c)].
When asking for donations or fees, schools and districts should consider working with their own attorneys to ensure compliance with these important laws. Many schools send out donation requests with wording that indicates the donation is required rather than voluntary; this is in essence the same as a fee.
Chapter 9 further describes allowable fees for field trips:
- Fees for field trips and excursions in connection with courses of instruction or school-related social, educational, cultural, athletic or school band activities, so long as no pupil is prevented from making the field trip or excursion because of a lack of sufficient funds [Education Code section 35330(b)].
- Fees should be collected on a voluntary basis only.
- A school must not require that a student pay an admission charge to an exhibit, fair, theater or similar activity for instruction or extracurricular purposes when a visit to such places is part of the district’s educational program [Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. No. NS-2469 (1940)].
- No student may be left behind due to insufficient funds, nor may a student be left behind for failing or refusing to participate in fundraiser…
- Fees for outdoor science camp programs, as long as no pupil is denied the opportunity to participate because of nonpayment of the fee (Education Code section 35335).
Because fees are allowed to be collected for field trips, the fees may be refundable if the field trip is canceled. In these instances, amounts paid by students and/or parents for the event should be tracked by individual payee. Unless refunds were expressly prohibited when funds were collected, if a parent or guardian paid for their child to attend an event, such as a field trip, they should receive a refund if the event or trip is canceled. That is, any allowable fee, such as those for field trips, should be refunded as long as there are no specific provisions prohibiting refunds included in board policy or the ASB constitution or bylaws.
We suggest reviewing existing board policy, as well as the ASB constitution and bylaws, to determine what guidance is provided on issuing refunds. Generally speaking, whether refunds should be issued is a local determination, subject to governing board policy, the ASB constitution and bylaws, and any previously communicated policy on the subject. The criteria for determining when refunds are allowed, and the process to be followed, is something best outlined in local board policy and/or the ASB club's constitution and bylaws. The process for issuing refunds may need occasional modification to accommodate certain circumstances.
Keep in mind that fundraising for individual students is not a function of ASB. When students are fundraising, they are raising money for all students to participate as a group. Funds raised in this manner are considered donations and are not refundable. Although parents may be asked to pay certain expenses, no student can be prevented from attending an ASB club event because he or she did not pay or fundraise. If there are not sufficient funds for an activity, the activity cannot occur until and unless enough funds are raised or found from other sources. However, if a fee is charged for an activity, a parent pays for their student to attend, and that activity does not occur, the fee paid may be refunded.
Fundraising as a group for an activity and asking for a fee can appear similar; however, keep in mind that fundraising is more associated with donations. If it is disclosed that the fee is a donation, it may not be refundable. In contrast, even though a fee may be considered a donation, when that fee is tied to a specific activity such as a field trip, it is not considered a donation. When it is disclosed prior to the collection of funds that such a payment represents a fee per student, that fee may be refundable. This assumes that the payments were not specifically identified as donations when collected, and that there is not existing board policy or other district policy prohibiting refunds.
Many parents may not understand that, although it may appear that they are paying for their child to participate in an activity, they are actually contributing to the entire club and event. If a district’s business office and board policy allow for refunds, the criteria for when a refund can occur should be described in detail. Without proper policies, procedures, notification, planning and approvals, refunding money to individuals may be considered a gift of public funds, which is illegal. Although it may seem justified, supported by past practices, or noble in times of financial need, it is nonetheless impermissible to issue refunds for payments that were in fact donations.
When a policy exists for refunds, it’s important that refunds occur only for those parents or guardians who have paid for the specific trip or event expenses for their child. Refunds are not typically allowable for funds that have been raised or donated, because these funds usually become the property of the ASB. Even if parents incorrectly believe they are paying for their child to participate in an activity, all fundraisers are considered donations to ASB and are not subject to refund. Most districts have a refund policy that effectively states that refunds are prohibited, so we recommend reviewing board policies for further guidance.
When fees are collected and the activity does not occur, there is no need for purchase orders to be approved for refunding fees. The students should still be notified of the refunds, but further action by the students is not necessary. Unless the district has other required internal control procedures, the bookkeeper may refund the fees and notify the students of the amount of the refunds.
In all instances, thorough documentation and transparency must remain a priority. Student activity funds remain ASB trust funds that require a higher level of oversight. Administrators have a fiduciary duty to protect student funds at all times. When additional assistance or clarity is needed, we recommend seeking guidance from the district’s external auditors and/or governing board.
Finally, only ASB funds and activities belong in ASB trust accounts. Classroom supplies, and other teacher-led non-ASB trips or activities and their associated cash collections or revenues and expenditures, including any refunds, do not belong in ASB, should not be accounted for in ASB, and should not be part of ASB. Further, ASB should not be used as a clearing account or pass-through to accommodate these activities. If an activity or event is truly not supporting ASB, any funds or accounts it has within ASB should be closed and moved to another account approved by the district’s business office, such as a school site donation account.