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Calif. High Court Rules Districts May Charge Fees for Bus Service

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California school districts may charge fees for student bus transportation, the state Supreme Court ruled last week.

The 6-to-1 decision to uphold a state law that authorized such fees likely will spur more financially strapped districts to charge pupils for bus transportation, observers said.

"I know that many districts have been interested in the outcome of this,'' said Priscilla Brown, a San Francisco lawyer who represents 25 districts that have or favor the fees, which typically range from 50 cents to $1 a day round trip.

The state education department had advised districts not to charge for transportation after a lower California court found the law unconstitutional in 1988.

But several districts ignored the advice and charged fees. The 25 districts sued the state education department to clarify whether the law violated the state constitution's guarantees of free public schooling and equal protection under the law.

The March 16 majority opinion by Justice Edward Panelli said that since schools are not required to provide transportation, the service is not a "necessary element'' of free public education.

The law's provision that indigent students do not have to pay the fees means "no child will be denied transportation to school because of poverty,'' he added.

Justice Stanley Mosk dissented, arguing that the law will force some families to choose between "bus fare or grocery money.''

Peter Roos, the lawyer for a group of migrant farm workers who intervened in the suit, said the fees have resulted in erratic school attendance among his clients.

"These indigent exceptions really don't work very well,'' he said. "And there are working poor people for whom paying a fee will be a burden.''-M.W.

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