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.”