EDUCATION MATTERS: Parent fees for public education come under scrutiny

By Marsha Sutton

Contributor

One woman with a simple mission has made life very complicated for administrators in the San Diego Unified School District. And what she's stirred up has far-reaching ramifications for all other San Diego County school districts.

A hero to some and a villain to others, Sally Arguilez Smith has challenged San Diego Unified to follow the law and to cease charging parents for curricular and extracurricular materials and activities, including supplies for required courses.

In an interview on the subject, Dan McAllister, San Diego County Treasurer-Tax Collector, said the issue deserves close attention by the other 41 school districts in the county.

"Other districts must in fact take note of the actions by the largest school district in the county of San Diego, San Diego Unified," he said.

McAllister chairs the audit and finance committee for SD Unified, which is a public committee formed about six years ago to facilitate good governance, openness and outside scrutiny of the district's financial patterns.

"Things have gotten more difficult each year — more deficits and inabilities by schools to pay for basic materials," McAllister said. "So that responsibility has more and more fallen on the shoulders of parents who are already, in many cases, struggling to make ends meet."

But the state constitution guarantees a free public education, said McAllister, who applauded Smith's efforts.

Smith has uncovered literally hundreds of violations in schools throughout San Diego Unified and has pursued this issue relentlessly. At her insistence, SDUSD now provides guidelines, posted online two weeks ago, to all principals, teachers and staff members — and to families — about parent fees and what is and is not allowable.

It turns out that, with few exceptions, nothing is permitted, including all those basic school supplies that teachers typically ask parents to provide for their kids at the start of each school year, including paper, notebooks, dividers, binders, markers, colored pencils, crayons, journals, books, scissors, rulers ... everything.

Special clothes for physical education cannot be required unless the school provides free P.E. uniforms to all students equally.

Graphing calculators for geometry? If those are required to complete assignments, the school must supply them.

How about the stand-up poster boards that science classes entering projects in science fairs require students to have? Yep, those too. It's not permissible for teachers to require students to purchase those boards if participation is assigned.

Projects for art, history, social studies and any other classes that require materials to complete an assignment must be provided by the school.

If any student chooses to buy his or her own material, that is allowable. However, a student who cannot afford to design and decorate a poster board that looks like it was created by a professional artist cannot be penalized with a lower grade for not buying special supplies.

Other classes where costs run high are more problematic. Art, woodworking, digital photography, guitar, instrumental music of any kind, theater, dance or any other elective that requires materials, instruments, equipment or supplies must have all costs associated with the elective covered by the school district.

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