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Three California Districts Challenged For Extracurricular-Activity Charges

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Copyright 1982 Editorial

School officials across California are watching three court challenges--one of which is expected to reach the state Supreme Court--that might give them direction in a controversy over whether students may be charged a fee for after-school activities.

Twenty-five percent of California's schools now charge fees for extracurricular activities, according to a study this year by Ray Berry of the University of California at Riverside. Fees range from $25 to $150.

No figures are available on how many schools across the nation charge fees for after-school activities, but a survey by the American Sports Education Institute found that 11 percent of the nation's schools now have "pay for play" policies. While outside funding for sports is not new, according to the institute, mandatory fees are new and of questionable legal standing.

In Santa Barbara, parents have challenged the school district's use of fees on the grounds that it violates a state regulation that forbids charging fees for any school activity. The case has already been heard in the Superior Court, which decided in favor of the district, and in the Appellate Court.

The appeals court has until Nov. 19 to issue a ruling. Both attorneys in the case say they will appeal an unfavorable decision to the state's supreme court.

A Superior Court judge heard a similar case in San Juan last week and is expected to issue a ruling soon. A Modesto case was resolved in Superior Court last summer in the district's favor, and parents there are considering an appeal.

Prohibits Charging for Programs

The regulation at issue in all cases, commonly called Section 350, prohibits charging for education programs "any fee, deposit, or other charge not specifically authorized by law."

But Santa Barbara officials say the regulation was meant to clarify the state's education code, which was changed in 1976 to shift authority from the state to the local level. Since the new code authorizes localities to do anything not specifically barred, the officials say, the regulation is no longer consistent with the code.

Santa Barbara schools in 1979 started charging fees of $25 to students who participated in after-school sports, music programs, and drama and other clubs for which a teacher received a stipend. The district allowed students whose families qualified for the federal food-stamp program to be exempted.

The district's Future Farmers of America club (ffa) immediately protested, saying that its members should not be charged since its activities might be considered vocational and the state constitution guarantees a free public education. That matter was settled when the legislature passed a law specifically exempting the ffa and other vocational clubs from such fees.

District officials claim the case, heard on Aug. 18, is central to determining which level of government has authority for running the schools."The authority of the state board of education and local control is the most important issue," said David Thomas, the Santa Barbara superintendent. "The board does not have legislative authority, but that's what it wants by trying to use 350, even though" the education code that the regulation refers to has been changed.

The San Juan case involves the same issue, but the parents in that dispute have had better luck so far. The Superior Court on Oct. 21 issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting activity fees and ordering that all pupils be allowed to participate in extracurricular programs.

The trial court, which last Monday heard arguments, will soon decide whether it will issue a preliminary injunction or drop the case.

Parents in San Juan have bolstered their claim to free extracurricular activities by pointing to a sentence in the state law passed after the ffa affair.

The law states, in part: "This section [providing for free vocational education programs] shall not be construed to authorize a fee or charge for any pupil to enroll or participate in any activity other than a vocational student organization."

That statement, contends Kent Seitzinger, the attorney for the parents, is evidence that the state legislature considers Section 350 to still be part of the new education code--contrary to what the Superior Court found in the Santa Barbara case.

Mr. Seitzinger also has challenged the distinction between regular educational programs and after-school programs, and he claims that some students were denied constitu-tional equal-protection rights with the food-stamp means test.

Parents in Modesto, who lost their case in Superior Court, said that they were not opposed to the charging of fees, but that the burden of funding after-school programs was applied unevenly.

Ellen Reesh, the organizer of the Modesto legal challenge, said that the $12,000 that the 400 band members pay in fees wrongly exceeds the $4,000 paid in stipends to the band's instructors.

Money Most Important

Despite all of the legal issues, the most compelling matter in question for districts is money. Many officials contend that without fees, extracurricular programs would have to be cut.

"I'm against the fees, too," said Fred Stewart, the superintendent of schools in San Juan. "But the state is responsible for 80 percent of our budget these days, and the state legislature hasn't kept up with its promises."

The $35 fee now charged students at the three Santa Barbara high schools pays for $75,000 of a $300,000 annual extracurricular budget, said Mr. Thomas, the superintendent. Fees of $40 add up to $400,000 of San Juan's $900,000 after-school budget, and the $30 Modesto fee pays for $60,000 of the district's $160,000 activities budget, officials in the districts said.

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