TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Policing how schools fund extracurricular activities

Those nickel-and-dime fees for participating in the school band, lacrosse team or cheerleading squad are a frequent irritant to cash-strapped parents — and it turns out, they may sometimes be illegal.

The San Diego Union-Tribune has discovered that privately organized booster clubs in one local school district were exacting hundreds of dollars per student in mandatory participation fees for band, color guard and other after-school activities. After the practice came to light, the district abolished the fees, concluding they violated the California constitution’s guarantee of a free public education for all.

It is more important than ever that journalists keep watch over how schools are funding extracurricular activities, because schools increasingly are creating booster clubs of the size and sophistication rivaling those of mid-size colleges.

As NPR reported this week, schools are turning to donations to close the funding gap created by state-level budget cuts. That means money being collected and distributed outside of established budgetary channels, which provides opportunities for mistakes — or mischief — for which journalists should be watchful.

Any booster club or foundation that is soliciting public donations under a promise of tax-exemption must qualify with the Internal Revenue Service, and that comes with the annual obligation to file an IRS Form 990 disclosure that is publicly available on request. If the organization does not promptly comply with a disclosure request, the reports should be available online through Depending on the structure of the organization and the state’s public-records law, periodic audits of the foundation may also be subject to a public-records request.