On January 11, 43 students, parents, and school staff gathered inside the media center at Junipero Serra High School in Tierrasanta for the monthly meeting of the School Site Council. The council sat in the middle of the room at four conjoined tables. Comprising three students, three parents, four teachers, a school counselor, and Principal Mike Jimenez, the council is charged with overseeing a plan to improve the school in accordance with state- and federally funded programs. All schools in San Diego Unified School District are required to have a school site council (SSC).
On the agenda for the January 11 meeting was an item entitled “SSC Membership.” Written to the right of that was “Voting Item.” No additional information was provided.
The meeting was called to order and the minutes were approved.
Then the “SSC Membership” item was introduced.
“I’d like to make a motion to remove Sally Smith from the council,” said Principal Mike Jimenez.
“I second that motion,” said the school counselor.
Several women in the audience, most wearing headphones to hear a Spanish translation, immediately began to protest. But the council’s chair, Serra High School teacher and swim club administrator Suzie Fore, prohibited comment on the matter.
“Comments were allowed at the beginning of the meeting during public comment,” said Fore.
“This is so vague — ‘school site council membership’ item. Why didn’t you write that you were voting a member off? You need to inform people of the agenda item,” said one person in the audience.
“Es criminal,” uttered another woman from a table near the back of the room.
“The agenda was published 72 hours before the meeting, as stated in our bylaws,” said Fore, before prohibiting further discussion.
Principal Jimenez stated that the council should remove Smith because she was inconsiderate and rude to a student at a previous meeting. At the December meeting, a discussion about student fees had been held. Smith has actively opposed charging fees for curricular and extracurricular activities. One student on the council had voiced her concern that if the school did not collect fees, many extracurricular programs would be discontinued. After the student had finished speaking, Smith let out a loud chuckle. Then the student started to cry.
Principal Jimenez’s motion went to a vote. Fore distributed ballots to the 12 council members. Minutes later, the votes were tallied and Fore announced: “The motion passes 9 to 3 in favor of voting Sally Smith off the school site council.”
Smith grabbed an overstuffed manila folder and walked to a table at the back of the room. She remained at that table, sitting with one of her supporters, until the meeting was adjourned. The only words she uttered occurred when the chairwoman asked if she would care to give a presentation to the council on another agenda item.
“No. Didn’t you just vote me off?” Smith asked in a shrill voice.
Seven days before the council meeting, Smith walked into a small coffee shop in University Heights holding another overstuffed manila folder. A former divorce lawyer, Smith is slender and in her 50s. She wore blue jeans, a red César Chávez T-shirt, and a black cardigan. Her waist-length, dark brown hair was decorated with four brightly colored feathers, which she said represented her Native American ancestry.
The folder she carried was six inches thick, stuffed with examples of what Smith said were illegal fees. In her left hand she held a San Diego Unified School District poster that featured the word “honesty” in large letters. “See this? I’m trying to hold them accountable, that’s all,” Smith said.
She was irritated and upset, not because she knew the council was going to vote her off at the following week’s meeting but because, she said, school administrators would misstate the reason why they wanted her removed. It wasn’t about her laughter at the student during the previous meeting, she contended. It was about her effort to see to it that the school observe the law and stop charging students illegal fees.
Serra High charged fees for uniforms, camps, donations for coaches (to augment salaries), and spirit packs, required for all extracurricular activities. The school also charged fees for curricular activities: graphing calculators, physical education uniforms, and school supplies, plus students were required to purchase Associated Student Body cards.
Since 2006, Smith has spent hundreds of hours collecting examples of what she believes are illegal fees charged by San Diego Unified schools.
“This is a well-established practice,” she said. “It is the mind-set of San Diego Unified School District. Every year parents receive a list of required supplies: calculators, pencils, the list goes on and on. The law is, curricular and extracurricular activities are an integral part of the education experience, and they must be funded by the school district. It’s the law. The argument about whether the district should fund these activities took place 25 years ago.”
At the café, in between bites of her chorizo burrito, Smith leafed through the hundreds of pages of documents from the manila folder. She stopped at a copy of a 1984 lawsuit, Hartzell v. Connell. It is this lawsuit, she said, that guarantees free education at public schools. “The free school guarantee reflects the people’s judgment that a child’s public education is too important to be left to the budgetary circumstances and decisions of individual families,” read the California Supreme Court decision.
“This court holds that all educational activities — curricular or ‘extracurricular’ ” — must be free. Having a fee-waiver policy for needy students is not acceptable, the opinion said. “The stigma that results from recording some students as needy was recognized early in the struggle for free schools.”
Smith then pulled out an August 26, 2009 story from the Fresno Bee. The article reported on a lawsuit that three families filed against the Clovis Unified School District for charging students illegal fees. “This really got me going,” said Smith as she handed over the clipping. However, Smith said she was not interested in filing suit against San Diego Unified. “My goal is to get the school district to follow the law. Education is supposed to be free, and the Clovis lawsuit is just another example why San Diego Unified needs to observe the law. If they aren’t careful, they might find themselves in the same position as Clovis Unified did.”
Smith spoke rapidly as she pulled from the folder more examples of school fees. One was a Serra High swim club handout in which the chair of the School Site Council and swim team administrator, Suzie Fore, informed students of team dues. “Team dues will cover the following items: swim suits, team shirts, and all related banquet costs (dinner, awards, gifts),” read the handout.
The team dues amounted to $100, and that did not include a $15 fee to attend the annual swim team banquet. “Cash or checks will be accepted,” the handout continued. “Please make checks payable to Serra High School and write swim club on the memo line.”
“I think some adults have lost their minds,” said Smith.
Another example was a math course syllabus from the School of Creative and Performing Arts. Students were required to purchase notebook paper, a three-ring binder, and a $100 TI-84 graphing calculator.
A third example was the Point Loma High Cheer handbook, which listed fees for Point Loma’s cheerleading squad. Uniforms, music, signs, awards, and coaches’ donations for one year amounted to more than $500. For junior varsity, the cost exceeded $800. And if the students wished to compete, that estimate increased by $200 to $300.
“Cheerleading involves a huge financial commitment on the part of the parents,” read a paragraph in the handbook entitled “Financial Concerns.” “Each family must understand this financial commitment and assume responsibility — avoiding deadlines and refusing to clear accounts is unacceptable and it hurts everyone involved.”
Smith said that schools tried to skirt the law by calling a team a “club” or fees “donations.” “It’s semantics,” Smith said. “People are creative, and there are no guidelines from the district.”
But, she said, “Public schools have to provide the extracurricular and curricular activities that they can fund, period, with equal access to all children.”
Being removed from the School Site Council was a minor defeat for Smith. Last fall she had a significant victory. In November, Smith filed 30 grievances with the district against 30 district teachers for charging fees to students. Smith has not received a response to her filing, but according to spokesman Jack Brandais, she was successful in getting San Diego Unified to change its policies. Days after she filed her grievances, the district released a set of guidelines regarding student fees. On the front page appears a summary of the rule: “The right of free access also prohibits mandated purchases of materials, supplies, equipment or uniforms associated with the activity, as well as the payment of security deposits for access, participation, materials, or equipment.”
“Those fees are gone,” said Brandais during a January 15 phone interview. “It is going to be more difficult. Parents can certainly donate to the program, but because of the state law, students that participate cannot be required to pay for things.
“Kids can do car washes, but schools can no longer say they have to pay for this or that,” said Brandais. “It is going to put some pressure on [the schools]. Things have gotten more expensive over the years, and the teams will have to wash a lot more cars.”
Asked whether the new policy will result in fewer school activities, Brandais responded, “I think they will have to reevaluate, because they will have to restructure everything.”
Despite the assurance from Brandais, Smith remained skeptical that the district would be able to enforce the new guidelines. “I want to see budgets for school sites, that’s where the money is supposed to go for the activities,” wrote Smith in a January 15 email. “The district posted the fees guidelines, so what? It’s difficult to find. It’s been the law for twenty-five years.”
Smith said she would continue to monitor San Diego Unified, but she also planned to contest fees at other schools. She said that the practice of charging student fees is widespread in the county’s 42 districts.
In Poway Unified School District, to take one example, the Poway High band curriculum lists the cost of uniforms and other required attire at $500; Del Norte High students are required to purchase TI-84 graphing calculators for a precalculus math course.
Despite the listed fees, the district says the charges are optional. “Overall, [Poway Unified School District] doesn’t charge fees,” said Sharon Raffer, the district’s spokesperson. “We ask for donations. If the student does not donate, the student still participates in extracurricular activities and in classes. Even our transportation fees for athletics are considered donations. And if students don’t have calculators, then we provide them.”
Diane “Sunny” Goodwin offered a teacher’s perspective. She’s taught kids for 41 years, most of those in the Oceanside Unified School District, and she continues to tutor children at her private tutoring facility, Sunny Day Tutoring Services, in Oceanside.
“In most cases, especially at the elementary level,” she said, “the request for supplies comes because the supply budgets have been cut too deeply at this point, that most teachers are spending hundreds to thousands of dollars of their own money to subsidize the supplies for students. I [spent] about $3000 to $5000 per year of my own money for classroom supplies, instructional materials, rewards, special events, and I often paid for students who could not afford the money requested to pay for buses for field trips.
“I believe the schools are justified in asking for students to pay for individual materials they can have at their personal, private disposal,” she said.
Goodwin believes that students who choose to participate in an extracurricular activity should pay for it, the same as they would if the activity weren’t held at the school.
Smith disagrees: “It’s the law. You can’t charge a fee to the students, because there’s a constitutional right to free education. If schools can’t afford it, then they shouldn’t offer it. It’s as simple as that.”