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Calif. High Court Bars Schools' Use of Fees For Extracurriculars

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The California State Supreme Court has ruled that because extracurricular activities are "educational in character," public-school officials may not levy fees on students who participate in such activities.

In writing the majority opinion for the court, Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird said, "It can no longer be denied that extracurricular activities constitute an integral component of public education."

The 6-1 ruling of the state's high court upholds a lower-court ruling that the Santa Barbara High School District cannot charge a $25 fee--it has risen to $35 since the suit began--for students' participation in each interscholastic sport or extracurricular activity. School officials had divided the activities into four categories--dramatic productions, music groups, instrumental groups, and cheerleading groups--and charged the fee for participation in each program within the categories.

Thus, a student participating in chorus, football, and a one-act play would be charged $105 under the current fee structure.

But in its April 20 decision in the case, Hartzell v. Connell, the high court said that all programs offered by public schools, even those offering no academic credit and outside school time, fall under the "free school" provision of the state constitution. The provision requires the legislature to "provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported in each district."

The court noted that the Santa Barbara High School District offers a "wide variety of courses ranging from cheerleading to madrigal singing and from archery to football."

The court found that those and other extracurricular activities are protected by the prohibition against school fees contained in Title V, Section 350 of the California Administrative Code. Section 350 says that "a pupil enrolled in a school shall not be required to pay any fee, deposit, or other charge not specifically authorized by law."

Wide Impact Seen

The decision is expected to have a significant impact on California school districts, where many officials--especially in response to Proposition 13, the property-tax-cutting initiative of 1978--have imposed fees to defray the costs of extracurricular activities.

Some observers also note that the ruling, because of the court's "progressive reputation," could have an impact in other states in which fee structures might be contested.

Santa Barbara High School District officials say they stand to lose $80,000 in activity fees next year. Jack Howell, assistant superintendent for secondary education, said officials will decide by January what programs they can no longer afford and what other revenue sources are available.

Maria Dennison, a lobbyist with the American Sports Education Institute, said a 1983 random sampling of 10,000 schools nationwide showed that 16 percent of the 4,031 schools that responded had "pay-for-play" programs. Ms. Dennison said the survey also showed that activity fees were charged by "well over 30 percent" of the schools in California, Utah, and Wisconsin.

"The basic effect of the [California] State Supreme Court decision is that there will be fewer school sports and physical-education programs,' Ms. Dennison said.

Thomas P. Anderle, the attorney representing the Santa Barbara High School District, agreed. "I4think we'll see a lot less growth and some cutbacks and I think that's too bad."

Negative Effect Denied

But Kirk Ah Tye, the plaintiffs' lawyer, said he did not think extracurricular programs would be adversely affected by the court's ruling.

"Conceivably, of course, that could happen," Mr. Ah Tye said, "but school financing is really part of the political process. The legislature now has a burden to provide for the revenues to cover this part of the educational curriculum and, politically speaking, these types of things are really expected in a contemporary curriculum."

Mr. Ah Tye is a lawyer with Channel County's Legal Services Association, a law office of the federal government's Legal Services Corporation. In the suit, he represented Barbara Hartzell, a mother with two children in Santa Barbara schools at the time the taxpayers' suit was filed, and the Coalition Opposing Student Fees, a group of local organizations.

Sought to Avoid Cuts

The suit was filed shortly before the start of the 1980-81 school year. According to court records, the district school board had decided to institute a fee structure beginning in September 1980 to avoid having to cut the high-school extracurricular program. The board, which had pared about $1.1 million from its budget, said its contribution to activities would decrease. Inflation, declining enrollment, and the adoption of Proposition 13 were cited as reasons for the budget decrease.

The Santa Barbara Superior Court ruled in favor of the school district, but on appeal the California Courts of Appeal declared the fee structure unconstitutional.

Lone Challenge to Date

Warren S. Brown, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Activity Associations, said he did not know of any other challenges to activity fees that have gone as far as the Santa Barbara suit.

He said his organization strongly supports the contention that extracurricular activities are educational, and it supports a fee structure only as a last resort.

"Participating activities are educational themselves in a variety of8different ways and should be provided for like any other educational program in the school, such as chemistry or math," Mr. Brown said. "But if it comes down that you either pay a participation fee or not have an activity program, then as a last recourse, I suppose that's all right and should be done."

Allocation Needed

Mr. Howell said Santa Barbara officials had expected to raise about $80,000 in fees in 1984-85. Since those fees can no longer be levied, David Thomas, the superintendent of schools, plans to ask the school board to allocate $50,000 for extracurricular activities, the assistant superintendent said. There are also plans to ask each of the three high schools to contribute $10,000 from gate receipts of athletic events and reserve funds, Mr. Howell added.

"Then, by Janurary of next year, we'd have to get into a rather detailed study of what we can afford to carry further," Mr. Howell said. "We'd have to see whether we can tap sources of revenue we haven't been tapping or whether we should reduce the [extracurricular] program.''

Another Source of Funds

Another source of revenue, however, could be forthcoming if two bills currently in the California State Legislature are adopted.

One Senate bill would impose a 10-percent excise tax on operators of professional sports teams and events. The money would be sent to school districts to support high-school interscholastic athletic programs. A hearing on the bill before the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee is scheduled for May 16.

A similar measure in the Assembly is scheduled for a committee hearing May 21. That bill calls for excising a 3-percent tax on ticket sales and a 6-percent tax on broadcast and television rights.

Roger Kluth, a consultant for the Senate committee, said the bill was initially developed "because school sports' programs have been feeling the financial pinch due to the passage of Proposition 13 and reduced school aid from the state to such an extent that some school districts are charging fees to students who participate in school sports."

The state supreme court's decision, Mr. Kluth said, "would obviously make this bill even more valid."

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