Jerusalem ORT High School Withholds Diploma for 18 Months Over Unpaid Fees

For about a year and a half now, a large Jerusalem high school has withheld a matriculation certificate from one of its students because the girl's mother refused to pay a portion of the student activity fees the school demanded. The mother claims the fees exceed the maximum that the law allows the school to charge.

The action by the high school, Michlelet ORT Givat Ram, violates the law on students' rights, which requires that students not suffer for the acts or omissions of their parents. It also violates an Education Ministry directive that requires high school principals to distribute matriculation certificates to students without delay.

"Until I enlisted a lawyer's services to get what I was entitled to, every level of the education system, from the school to those responsible at the [Education] Ministry, related to the issue with disdain," the student's mother said yesterday. "I hope other parents won't hesitate to demand their rights."

In September 2007, when Nira (not her real name) was a 12th-grader at Michlelet ORT Givat Ram, her parents were asked to pay about NIS 2,300. However, they only paid about NIS 1,000. Much of the unpaid balance involved fees that the school was not allowed by law to charge, and Nira's mother therefore refused to pay.

The debt included a NIS 669 fee for a "supplementary educational program," whereas the maximum the law allows is NIS 399. Furthermore, the law requires that the students' parents consent to their children's participation in such programs, which Nira's parents say they did not. Nira's mother also disputed the school's charging NIS 115 for field trips, NIS 200 for classroom heating in winter and NIS 125 to pay security guards. She does not dispute owing the remainder, of about NIS 235.

By conservative estimates, Nira's school has charged parents more than NIS 500,000 beyond what is allowed under criteria set by the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee. Other estimates put the excess fees even higher.

The Education Ministry, which in the past has promised strict enforcement to prevent schools from overcharging, said yesterday that it could not respond to a problem that arose two years ago. The ministry's web site states that student fees at Michelet ORT Givat Ram have not yet been approved for this year, so the school is "not authorized to charge fees."

At the end of the 2007-8 school year, the entire graduating class was given diplomas except for Nira, who was told that because her parents had not paid her student fees in full, she would not be getting her diploma.

In September 2008, the school received the students' matriculation certificates from the ministry, but when Nira and her parents sought to get hers, they were turned down on the grounds that the school was owed about NIS 1,300 in fees.

In subsequent months, according to Nira's mother, the school's principal refused to back down, and Education Ministry officials were unresponsive. Meanwhile, Nira needed the matriculation certificate to enroll at a college or university.

A spokesman for the ORT school network said the organization had received a formal legal opinion from the Education Ministry permitting it to withhold a diploma over the nonpayment of mandatory fees. "As soon as the mandatory fees are paid, the student will be given her matriculation certificate," the spokesman said.

But the Education Ministry said that "the principal is required to give the student her matriculation certificate, and the ministry intends to verify that this is done in the near future. With respect to demands for student fees for the current school year, the [Jerusalem] district intends to verify that the payments this year do not exceed the [fee] schedule approved by the Knesset Education Committee."

Sunny Kalev, a lawyer from the educational rights clinic at the Ramat Gan Academic Center of Law and Business who provided legal support to Nira and her mother in their dispute with the school, said the school "is not allowed to bill parents for classroom heating or supplementary study programs without their personal consent, and it certainly can't punish the student.

"The very fact that they delayed issuing the matriculation certificate because of a debt, regardless of whether the debt was legal or not, is irregular in and of itself," she said.