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Parents Sue District, Seek Refund of Fees

Education: Though charges have been ruled unconstitutional, trying to get the money back is unusual, a state official says.

October 25, 2000|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three Pasadena parents sued their school district Tuesday to halt the collection of student activity fees and, in what state officials said was a novel move, demanded a refund for money already paid for ID cards, athletic clothes and notebook organizers.

The lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, says the practice of collecting fees for extracurricular activities is unconstitutional. The plaintiffs say the Pasadena Unified School District is violating the California Constitution's "free education" clause and a 1984 state Supreme Court decision that outlawed such charges for extracurricular activities.

Officials at the school district--which serves more than 23,000 students from Pasadena, Altadena and Sierra Madre--did not return repeated telephone calls Tuesday seeking comment.

But in a letter last month to the attorney for the parents, the district's lawyer denied that Pasadena Unified had charged for notebooks, physical education clothing or student identification cards at any campus for this school year. The lawyer added that the district was continuing to investigate any past incidents of charging fees.

An attorney for the state Department of Education said Tuesday that the suit's demand for a refund was highly unusual.

"It's a novel case and an interesting thing to follow," said Roger Wolfertz, the department's deputy general counsel. He said that although courts have held that such fees are unconstitutional, "no appellate-level decision on reimbursement has ever been made."

Wolfertz said the 1984 case, Hartzell vs. Connell, which grew out of a dispute at a Santa Barbara County school district, established that extracurricular activities such as band and cheerleading are part of the education program that have to be provided free.

The question of a refund didn't come up in the precedent-setting case. "But logically, if the fee was [being collected] illegally, you should reverse it," he said.

Wolfertz said a "fair number of schools" across the state continue to charge fees for extracurricular activities because few parents object to a practice that provides vital funding for such programs as band and cheerleading.

He added that some education fees are permissible under state law but that they are few and are spelled out in law, such as the charge for bus transportation in rural areas.

The plaintiffs in the case filed Tuesday allege that the Pasadena district has required its students to pay for athletic uniforms, student organizer books, mandatory student identification cards and associated student body cards, which are required at some campuses for membership on a competitive athletic team or pep squad.

"In a community in which over two-thirds of the students qualify for government food aid because of their low family income, forcing families to cough up fees, knowing that it is illegal, is reprehensible," said plaintiff Rachel Peregrina.

She said she joined the suit after her son, who attends Eliot Middle School, was threatened with detention unless he purchased a school organizer. The other plaintiffs are Rene Amy, a former school board candidate, and Sylvia Scott, a guardian for three students in the district.

The suit demands an injunction against collecting fees and restitution, but it doesn't put a time limit on the demand. Kevin Snider, the attorney for the plaintiffs, said he will seek an order making the suit a class action covering all district parents.

Snider said Pasadena school officials have been informed by their own state lobbyists that such fees violate the law. He said he even repeated the warning in a letter to the district several months ago.

"They've claimed they are not doing this in the past. But there is plenty of evidence they are," he said.

Wolfertz said that the state Education Department receives about a dozen complaints a year from parents about districts that charge mandatory fees for such items as cheerleading uniforms. He said districts that are aware of the law seek voluntary donations for such items but do not exclude students who don't pay.

Earlier this year, for instance, a parent complained that Temple City Unified School District officials were charging a mandatory fee for his daughter's pep squad uniform. That prompted a letter from Wolfertz.

"It appears your district is charging parents for their children's participation on a pep squad," Wolfertz wrote in March to the superintendent. "That charge is either for the uniform and other expenses or solely for the uniform. . . . It appears to me that your district is charging a fee that is totally illegal; that charge should be discontinued and the payments refunded."

Temple City school officials said they changed their policy and now ask only for donations.

Meanwhile, Amy said that even if the fees were suspended today, he and other parents should get a refund for what has been going on illegally for years.

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