Schools have enlisted debt collectors to make parents pay "voluntary" donations, with one school attempting to ban a teenager from the ball until the optional fee was paid.
Documents obtained under the Official Information Act reveal cases brought to the attention of the education minister, including a furious parent who received a debt notice from a debt-collecting agency in the name of his son.
Schools have been sent warnings for fudging the fact that some fees are optional, while others have been caught trying to withhold privileges unless the "voluntary" fees were paid.
By law, every child has the right to a free education from age 5 to 19. But state schools say they cannot survive on government funding so ask parents for an annual donation – on top of compulsory fees. In the year to December 2010, schools collected $101m in donations.
But documents show the Education Ministry has had to warn some schools to cease their fundraising tactics.
In September 2010, Hastings' Karamu High School was reprimanded after advising a parent that her daughter would not be allowed to buy a ball ticket or order a school leaver's jersey until donation money was paid.
"As you are aware, no student should be denied information or privileges available to other students by a board attempting to recover payments and there should be no communication with students and/or their families suggesting there are such consequences," ministry Napier office acting manager Richard Roscoe wrote. He was assured that the threat had been withdrawn.
Warnings were also sent to Southland Girls' High School, which was charging parents $60 to cover the cost of relief teachers during a school camp. It had also introduced a compulsory $90 "activity fee", which was not allowed.
Then-education minister Anne Tolley called an investigation into Hutt International Boys' School in 2010, after correspondence from a parent showed it was not clear which part of the fees was compulsory and which was a donation.
And in October 2011, a parent of a pupil at Wakatipu High School complained to the ministry after receiving an invoice for unpaid fees and donations from debt-collecting agency Baycorp, including $300 for a school camp she said she had not been notified about.
Another concerned parent contacted the ministry after being threatened with debt collection action over school donations, while a father could not believe he had received a notice from a debt collection agency in his son's name.
The debt was $91.50, and the father was described as "very agitated", saying he had had no previous communication with the school about the debt.
Another parent received an invoice for $275 from a school, and was told detailed invoices showing $100 was a "donation" were being sent only to those who requested them. "This seems wrong. Some parents would be under the impression the entire amount is compulsory."
While schools' operational funding was increased by 2 per cent in this year's Budget, Principals' Federation president Paul Drummond said funding had not kept pace with actual costs and cash-strapped schools relied heavily on parents' voluntary support.
"[Ministry] funding hasn't kept pace with the actual costs of operating a school and the expectations of parents, who want the extras."
But most schools were careful to make sure parents knew the difference between fees and donations.
School Trustees Association president Lorraine Kerr said boards had to accurately inform parents of donations. But it was difficult for schools to fundraise in the current financial climate, and many were struggling.
Education Ministry guidelines say that where a school's board believes a debt is legitimately owed, it may collect such debts in the same way as any other organisation. However, a board could not employ debt collectors in an attempt to force parents to pay the school donation.
Education Ministry acting senior manager Dennis Cribb said while state schools could ask for donations from parents or caregivers, these were voluntary and it was important schools made that clear when making a request. Contributions could be paid in full, in part, or not at all.
"The Ministry of Education expects boards of trustees to comply with the law and does not condone any form of pressure that leads to voluntary contributions becoming, in effect, compulsory."
- The Dominion Post