Two prestigious Auckland schools have been ordered by the Ministry of Education to stop asking parents to pay for the right to enter their children in out-of-zone ballots.
Auckland Grammar School and Cornwall Park District School received strongly worded letters from the Ministry of Education after it got complaints from parents who were asked to fork out between $50 and $75 for the ballots.
The ministry also issued an Auckland-wide "critical reminder" to principals, to remind them they are not allowed to charge for the ballots.
"A reminder that schools cannot charge families a fee to enter a child into the ballot for out-of-zone places. Administering a ballot for out-of-zone students is considered part of the normal activity of school staff," the message in the February edition of the ministry Bulletin for School Leaders He Pitopito Korero said.
It also included a link to a circular which outlines what schools can and cannot charge parents for.
In-demand schools hold ballots for the limited number of places they can offer to students who live outside their intake zone. However, they are not allowed to charge parents for enrolment applications or ask for a payment as a condition of enrolment.
Katrina Casey, head of sector enablement and support at the Ministry of Education, told the Weekend Herald officials were alerted to the issue after receiving two complaints from parents who had received requests for payment.
"We have written to Auckland Grammar School and Cornwall Park District School to explain no payment connected with enrolment could be sought from parents and that schools cannot charge a ballot application fee, or make a fee a condition of enrolment," she said.
The Education Act 1989 states every student who is not an international student is entitled to free enrolment and education, she said. "As such, a board is not legally able to enforce a compulsory payment to enter students into a ballot for out-of-zone places.
"We reminded the schools that charging a fee, or asking for a donation, could also create an inference that enrolment at the school would be secured if the payment is made."
Auckland Grammar sought $50 from prospective parents, while Cornwall Park School asked for $75.
Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor said the $50 was a donation - not a fee - and as such the school was not doing anything wrong.
It was not mandatory to pay the donation, he said.
But Mr O'Connor said there were huge administration costs that came with running the out-of-zone ballots.
"We might get 500 out-of-zone applicants and frankly it's time-consuming when we might accept 15 off the ballot," he said. "It's a matter of us trying to recoup the costs otherwise we might have to recoup it elsewhere."
Mr O'Connor said the school would continue asking for a $50 donation.
Cornwall Park District School principal Janine Irvine said there was never any intent to break any regulation.
"It wasn't intentional and as soon as we found out, we stopped and gave refunds [to 25 families]," she said. "Obviously it's an error on our part and we've tried to rectify it."
The school had charged a fee for the past two years - a decision Ms Irvine said was due to administration costs.
"You don't get any other funding when children come into the schools from other areas ... we always have to think if we are going to continue doing that or not ... because there is a cost you incur doing it."
We reminded the schools that charging a fee, or asking for a donation, could also create an inference that enrolment at the school would be secured if the payment is made.
She said the question of whether the school could continue with out-of-zone ballots would be a school board decision.
The Labour Party's education spokesman, Chris Hipkins, said that while many schools were under a lot of financial pressure, the charges were just one more example of schools concocting "creative ways" to charge parents.
"Education in New Zealand is free and I think that schools should stop trying to get around that," he said.
Allan Vester of the New Zealand Secondary Principals' Council said there was a lot of administration work involved for schools in organising the ballots, including receipt of applications, meetings with parents and collection of data via testing.
"Following all of that, schools find that many students will have also been in the ballot for one or more other schools and so don't accept the offer of a place. Even more annoying is when the offer is accepted and then at the start of the new school year the school is informed the student is no longer going to attend," he said.
"The fee is a way of ensuring that the students who do attend the school are not effectively subsidising the multiple applications of other students who decide not to attend."
The practice was not condoned and the ministry was "right" to enforce that, Mr Vester said, however, it "may not realise just how time-consuming and resource-hungry the process can be".