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Unable to charge fees, schools brace for shift in extracurricular programs

Legal settlement bars public schools from charging student fees, and proposed legislation would require all materials and equipment to be provided free. Some schools say they'll have to scrap programs.

May 10, 2011|By Megan O'Neil, Los Angeles Times
  • Musical ensembles are among the public school programs that no longer can be financed with mandatory fees.
Musical ensembles are among the public school programs that no longer can… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Local education officials this week said they are bracing for a dramatic shift in how extracurricular activities are funded, the result of a lawsuit settlement that bars schools and their affiliates from charging students fees for such programs as sports teams, musical ensembles and cheer squads.

California education officials in December settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against dozens of campuses, including John Burroughs High in Burbank, alleging that charging students for educational materials and activities violates a constitutional mandate that public school districts provide free and equitable education to all students.

The Legislature is now considering a law to impose penalties on districts where fees have been charged illegally. It also mandates that all educational and extracurricular supplies, materials and equipment be provided free of charge.

The new rules would also apply to booster clubs, foundations and community organizations that provide support to a school.

If approved, the rules would be disastrous for districts already strapped for cash, local officials said.

"Our district and our schools will need to rely more heavily on voluntary donations to preserve the same level of educational opportunities that students have enjoyed in the past," said Glendale Unified Deputy Supt. John Garcia. "There are a lot of practices now — not just in our district, but in districts all throughout the state — that are going to have to be changed as a result of this legislation when and if it passes."

Districts will be audited on student fees in the next school year, Garcia said.

Burbank Unified, which was named in the original ACLU lawsuit, has already set in motion an effort to bring its funding of extracurricular activities in line with new policies.

Brendan Jennings, choir director at Burroughs High, said his program dropped student fees about 18 months ago. Voluntary parent contributions and parent- and student-led fundraising now cover the costs, he said, which vary widely student to student but can sometimes run as a high as $3,000.

His program has long had a safety net that ensures all students can participate, regardless of their socioeconomic status, Jennings said.

But others said the ACLU lawsuit would cause more long-term harm than good, and threatens programs that some families are happy to pay for.

Glendale Unified has tried to sustain its music and visual and performing arts programs despite years of budget cuts, said school board member Mary Boger.

"We are going to have to give them up because they are going to be become cost-prohibitive," she said. "That to me is an absolutely chilling effect."

Officials at Los Angeles Unified, which was not named in the lawsuit, have said the district already prohibits supplementary charges, including voluntary participation fees for extracurricular activities. But some parents have complained that individual schools and programs have stretched the boundaries of that policy.

megan.oneil@latimes.com

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.

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