Apodaca: AB 165 makes schools nervous

Parents all over Newport-Mesa know the drill. Suzie wants to play soccer for the school team, so Dad ponies up hundreds of dollars to a booster club out of fear that she won't get any game time otherwise.

Or Johnny announces that he needs to buy a copy of "MacBeth" for English class, so Mom makes a late-night run to Barnes & Noble to nab the last copy on the shelf.

If Assembly Bill 165 passes, as expected, those types of practices — generally known as "pay to play" — could land a district in big trouble. And that's why Newport-Mesa school officials are scrambling to launch a preemptive strike by devising a comprehensive plan, and educating staff, faculty and parents regarding precisely what will be allowed, should the bill become law.

It's a mind-numbing task that's being led by Charles Hinman, the district's assistant superintendent of secondary education.

In the past two weeks, I've seen Hinman turn up at Corona del Mar High School's PTA meeting to help Principal Tim Bryan attempt to explain the legislation and its expected impact. The administrators were peppered with questions, which they handled with aplomb, but they also made it clear that much is at stake if the district messes up.

Hinman also gave a presentation on the issue at this week's school board meeting, where he was joined by Thomas Antal, Newport-Mesa's director of secondary curriculum and instruction, in trying to outline how the proposed law would affect the way teachers, coaches and parent fundraising groups operate.

They had barely begun their presentation before board members began firing questions. At one point the queries centered on a hypothetical art project, and the discussion grew so convoluted as the board members struggled to understand who can pay what and when — well, I got lost after about the third "what if."

That this legislation comes along at a time when districts are struggling with budget cuts only adds to the nervousness felt by school officials. There's understandable concern that the types of fundraising activities that schools have come to rely on as budgets have shrunk will take a hit. That would mean cutting back on some programs that enrich students' education, creating additional pressure on cash-strapped schools.

The origins of AB 165 lie in a lawsuit filed against the state last September by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The lawsuit resulted from an ACLU investigation that found a widespread practice in public schools of charging students fees to participate in various activities.

The complaint alleged that these fees violate the state's guarantee of free public education and discriminate against lower-income students. The legislation, proposed by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), is part of a settlement agreement.

At the heart of the bill is the requirement that school districts establish comprehensive monitoring and enforcement systems to ensure students are not illegally charged for participation in school activities.

If violations are found, districts must reimburse families, with interest, or face stiff financial penalties.

Hinman has my sympathies, but he'll need a lot more than that as he tries to wade through the labyrinth of school fundraising activities, classroom practices, and monies paid for sports, dance, music and arts programs.

But when I spoke to Hinman, he assured me that the changes wouldn't be dramatic.

"This isn't a shock," he said. "The basic structure of the law doesn't change. This doesn't make us do anything we shouldn't already have been doing."

But it will force schools to make abundantly clear that the payment of any funds or purchase of materials is strictly voluntary — a message that, until now, often gets lost. A student athlete, for instance, should not be denied playing time because his family has not donated money to a team booster club, or fails to buy uniforms and equipment.

Also, teachers cannot require students to buy books, art supplies, lab equipment or any other materials; instead they can request individual donations, or seek grants from fundraising groups to pay for items not covered by their schools. Even the purchase of student body cards cannot be mandatory, and there can be no penalty for nonpayment.

The key to making it work, Hinman stressed, will be communication and education. Strict guidelines and procedures must be established and passed on to teachers, parents, coaches and activities directors. Clear language must be used when soliciting donations, and the word "fee" should be retired from the fundraising lexicon.

If the legislation passes, districts will have no choice but to comply, and in Newport-Mesa's case, it's good to know that a capable administrator like Hinman is on the job, trying to make the impact as painless as possible. That's about all we can ask for.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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