Education

Clovis Unified to pay $250k in student fees suit

Clovis Unified will pay $250,000 to settle a 2009 lawsuit that alleged it illegally charged fees to students for extracurricular activities like cheerleading and band.

Three families will collect a share of $225,000, which also will pay lawyer fees and costs. The remaining $25,000 will be set aside for 18 months in case new allegations are uncovered. And others could see their costs go down as a result of the suit.

The families filed the lawsuit after receiving bills from the district for thousands of dollars. One student said she received an itemized bill for more than $2,400 for band fees described as "voluntary donations."

The district didn't admit fault in the case and contends that its policies were -- and continue to be -- legal.

But as a result of the settlement, the district's website now lists which fees are permissible and which are prohibited, and cites the laws and education code sections that apply.

Fresno lawyer James D. Miller, who represented the plaintiffs, said families will see their costs go down because they won't face district pressure to pay voluntary amounts they previously believed were mandatory. The district will need to more aggressively seek donations to cover costs, he said.

The high cost of extracurricular activities has been challenged in several lawsuits in California. The state Supreme Court said in 1984 that students and their families should not have to pay for activities -- sports, extracurricular activities such as marching band and most classes -- that are school-related.

State law does allow for voluntary donations and fundraising to support school programs as long as those activities are not mandatory for students.

Certain fees are allowed, such as direct costs for a class project and some transportation fees, insurance for athletes and physical education uniforms. Fees that are prohibited include those for band instruments, instructional materials, choir uniforms or athletics.

The Bee reported in February that even though school districts say they charge no fees for students to participate in programs and provide financial assistance as needed, expenses for equipment, clothing, camps and transportation push costs beyond what some families can afford -- and keep some students from signing up for an activity or sport.

As part of the settlement, the Clovis district has placed a policy manual on its website so families will know which activities are subject to fees. The 10-page policy outlines when costs are charged and cites state Education Code sections that allow fees. It also points out where fees are prohibited.

"These policies have not changed in the course of this settlement process, but are clearly outlined in the ... document," district spokeswoman Kelly Avants said in a written statement.

The case, which Miller filed 15 months ago on behalf of three families, said Clovis Unified was gouging them on fees for activities like band and color guard -- and even threatening to bar students from their commencement ceremony if the bills went unpaid.

The policy, Miller said, cites the state law allowing fees and specifies how fundraising is conducted. It also says that teachers must disclose that they may not charge certain fees, he said.

Miller said he will continue to keep tabs on Clovis Unified, as well as other local school districts.

"It's not over," he said Wednesday. "There will be continued oversight of the fees."

Even though the Clovis policies spell out which activities fees can be charged, Miller said there seem to be "inconsistencies" between the state Education Code and the state Supreme Court decision.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union sued dozens of California school districts, citing the same state Supreme Court decision Miller used in filing his suit against Clovis last year.

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