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L.A. school board wants to end fee for parent fingerprinting and find more ways to help the homeless

L.A. school board wants to end fee for parent fingerprinting and find more ways to help the homeless
Langdon Avenue Elementary in North Hills tries to be a welcoming place for its large population of homeless students. The school's principal supports increased efforts to help the homeless. (Los Angeles Unified)

Volunteering in a Los Angeles public school is about to get less expensive.

The school board on Tuesday directed the superintendent to stop charging volunteers — including students’ relatives — fees for required fingerprinting.

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The $56 fee for fingerprinting can be a substantial burden. About 80% of students in the nation’s second-largest school system come from low-income families.

In a separate action, the school board directed Supt. Austin Beutner to put together a report on how the district could do more to help homeless students and their families. The plan is expected to include a cost analysis of ideas including allowing homeless families to park overnight on district property and using housing bonds to build shelters or permanent living space on district property.

The $56 fingerprinting fee charged to volunteers is meant to reimburse the district for the cost of using them to search criminal records. The process aims to flag offenders who, for example, have been convicted of child abuse or sexual misconduct. The district sees the process as a necessary step to protect students and limit legal liability.

But the fee also can be a barrier for low-income families to get involved in the schools. Getting rid of it recently became a priority of district leadership.

“Families and community members are essential to the success of our students and schools,” Beutner said in a statement. “We want to eliminate costly fees and needless bureaucracy so every family and community member can help us provide every child with a great education.”

The wording of Tuesday’s motion gave Beutner 30 days to develop an updated volunteer fingerprinting policy “to reduce barriers for parent and community participation.” But L.A. Unified spokeswoman Janelle Erickson said the board action allows Beutner to drop the fee immediately — which he plans to do.

The state requires fingerprint checks for volunteers at early education centers, but the fingerprinting of all school volunteers is an L.A. Unified policy, Erickson said. The district processes about 1,500 to 2,000 volunteers each year, at a cost of about $112,000. Volunteers don’t have to repeat the process unless they take a break from volunteering for more than two years.

The district also will add six more places where would-be volunteers can get fingerprinted — bringing the total number to 13.

The board’s request for a report on homelessness set in motion what is likely to be a lengthy process. Beutner was given six months to produce the report.

The idea of housing homeless families on district land brought immediate opposition from those who live near the former site of Oso Elementary, which was closed years ago because of declining enrollment and eventually torn down.

District parent Guy Ziv, who lives near the site in Woodland Hills, worried that using it for the homeless would create “an unsafe place for our kids.”

Local resident Michael Murray, who attended Oso decades ago, warned about the “criminal element that this project would be sure to attract as an unintended side effect.”

Board Member Kelly Gonez, who pushed for the resolution, said no specific location has been proposed yet for anything.

“Ideally, the report would allow us to get a sense of all of our sites and what the possibilities might be,” she said later.

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Supporters of the motion included two principals of elementary schools in which at least 1 in 5 students is or recently has been homeless.

“The majority of this 20% is doubled up or even tripled up with other families,” said Alfredo Montes, principal at Langdon Avenue Elementary in North Hills. “I can only imagine how difficult it may be for these children to be provided with a quiet place to study.”

Montes described how one family recently lost housing when the father died in a construction accident. “We have been helping this family with school supplies, backpacks, uniforms and other items, but their needs go beyond what we can do at our school site,” he said.

Board member George McKenna said he was worried that the motion could turn out to be a feel-good effort leading to unaffordable proposals and no action.

He abstained, and board member Richard Vladovic voted no, but the motion passed by winning the required four-vote majority. (A seventh board seat is currently vacant.)

When asked to state his views, Beutner approached the issue with reserve.

“I appreciate the spirit of this and the urgency of the challenge,” he said, but “the No. 1 priority is to educate children.”

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