By Marsha Sutton
At $40 annually per vehicle, the San Dieguito Union High School District collected over $77,000 in fees this year from students for campus parking permits.
With an overall budget this year of about $107 million, $77,000 may seem insignificant. But there’s a principle at stake here, says Sally Smith, a San Diego attorney and relentless crusader for equal access in public education.
Smith has taken on dozens of school districts throughout California for what she claims are illegal fees that exclude or discriminate against low-income students.
A Uniform Complaint filed by Smith against SDUHSD on May 2 itemized five areas of questionable practices, one of which was student parking fees.
“It is strictly a fee to generate revenue directly from the students which is illegal,” her complaint reads. “[S]tudents are used to generate tens of thousands of dollars and only they bear the burden, not the adults. No district should impose a fee which makes it more difficult for students to get to school, particularly indigent students.”
In her complaint, Smith argued that parking on campus is related to an educational activity, and schools cannot charge fees for educational activities. Supporting this claim, Smith said that “students may have their parking pass revoked for behavior issues … so it is used as student discipline.”
She also noted that staff is not charged for parking on campus, only students. “The parking fees have been imposed unilaterally on only the students,” she said. “School districts that charge fees such as colleges require visitors, staff, and students to pay parking fees. UCSD is an example. The law is fairly applied to all citizens and does not single out minors to bear the burden of the cost for parking.”
Students, she wrote, are required to use their vehicles for school events, and students who can afford the fee “have an advantage over students who cannot pay parking fees because they have access to their vehicles for extracurricular activities.”
In addition, she said the district “recognizes that there are indigent students by requiring students to identify as charity cases to get the [parking] fee waiver, thus causing humiliation and shame to a child …”
Finally, Smith said there must be a specific law that allows school districts to charge particular fees, and there is no such California law identifying parking on school property as a legitimate fee.
She also claimed that the governing board of a school district must approve such fees, and San Dieguito’s board has never taken this action.
To support her arguments, Smith cited guidelines from the Tulare high school district which state that lawful fees must be specified in the California Education Code and must be authorized in advance by the school district’s board of trustees.
“The law requires any public agency, including school districts, to hold a public hearing, at which oral or written presentations can be made, as part of a regularly scheduled public meeting, before adopting any new fee or approving an increase in an existing fee,” guidelines state.