1 year later: CUSD moves to comply on fees

August 26, 2010 

One year ago: Parents sued Clovis Unified, saying it was charging excessive fees for school activities, in violation of the state constitution. Clovis was singled out after three families received invoices from the district saying they had to pay amounts connected to school programs.

Today: Fresno lawyer James D. Miller, who filed the suit against Clovis, said progress has been made in moving the district toward emphasizing voluntary donations instead of fees for activities. Both sides are continuing to negotiate.

Clovis Unified has made the necessary changes to get in compliance with the law, Miller said. "It's our understanding they will continue making changes," he said.

Clovis Unified officials would not discuss details of the lawsuit because it is still being litigated.

In the past year, the district filed papers challenging some of the claims. Lawyers have not filed any motions to make it a class-action case, which would allow any families that felt they were charged illegally to potentially receive refunds for any fees paid.

Meanwhile, a series of lawsuits, inspired by the Clovis case have been filed against four San Diego County school districts contending that the districts charged students illegally.

Sally Smith, a San Diego parent, who started raising the issue in Southern California last year, said she first learned about the fees issue through The Bee's accounts of the case.

She said the fees for activities were overwhelming -- between $500 and $2,000 for her daughter.

"I figured out what the law was and I could see that these were illegal fees," she said.

The suits in San Diego were filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.

"So many school districts are charging these fees, and in many cases, quite publicly charging these fees even though it is blatantly contrary to the constitution in California," said David Sapp, a staff lawyer for the ACLU in Los Angeles.

He said the state has abdicated its role to appropriately fund education, especially at a time when extra-curricular activities play a major role in a student's ability to get into college.

-- Marc Benjamin

Rendering plant dispute

One year ago: West Fresno activists said a 56-year-old rendering plant in their neighborhood ruins the area's quality of life with the overpowering smell of rotting animals. The activists say the plant is illegally operating at the site, and want it moved. The chief executive at Darling International Inc., the plant's owner, said the company has spent millions of dollars on modernizing the plant, and all rules are being obeyed. Fresno City Hall officials said they will create a nuisance-abatement agreement with Darling.

Today: Mary Curry, chairwoman of Concerned Citizens of West Fresno, said sharp odors sometimes still come from the plant. She said her group understands that the plant provides a necessary service. "We didn't expect them to close down," Curry said. "We just hoped [City Hall] would help them relocate."

Curry said she has seen a copy of a draft abatement agreement, but that's not the solution. "They need to move," Curry said of the rendering plant, which was in the county when it was built on the site in 1953. The city later expanded and annexed the area.

John Dugan, the city's development and resource management director, said work continues on the abatement agreement.

-- George Hostetter

Identity-theft scam

One year ago: Alfred Darnell Ford was under federal indictment for masterminding a sophisticated identity-theft scam that he used to buy materials for a sprawling home he was building east of Fresno.

Authorities said Ford and his wife, Renatta Carter-Ford -- who at the time was a federal court employee -- worked on the sprawling 5,500-square-foot home at 11880 E. Harvard Ave. in a rural area near Bethel and Clinton avenues for three years.

Officials alleged that Ford built the home using materials bought with stolen credit cards and labor provided by people who owed him drug money.

Today: In mid-September, a federal grand jury indicted Carter-Ford on charges that she knew about the scheme, but did not notify authorities.

Almost immediately, Ford pleaded guilty to four charges connected with the scam. In exchange, prosecutors agreed to drop the single felony charge against Carter-Ford.

In January, Ford was sentenced to five years and 10 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $91,721.96 in restitution by U.S. District Judge Oliver W. Wanger. Under a plea agreement, Ford agreed to forfeit all rights to the house and other personal property.

He is serving his sentence in the federal prison at Terminal Island, which is between San Pedro and Long Beach. His scheduled release date is July 9, 2014.

-- John Ellis

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