Governor signs new student fee legislation, bringing an end to ACLU litigation


Governor Jerry Brown recently brought some resolution to the matter of impermissible student fees, putting his signature on a bill that reinforces existing laws and judicial decisions while establishing reasonable enforcement measures for schools and districts.

In response, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it would dismiss a class action lawsuit that was filed against the state in 2010 on behalf of public school students.

Authored by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate) and signed into law on Sept. 29, the bill known as AB 1575 reaffirms that students may not be charged fees to participate in any activity that is “educational in character,” though it does allow schools and districts to request voluntary donations to maintain programs and services. The legislation further calls for school districts to incorporate fee complaint procedures into existing complaint policies by March 1.

“We are extremely pleased that the governor and the Legislature have passed a comprehensive bill that brings closure and further clarification to this important issue,” said Irvine Unified School District Superintendent Terry Walker. “We believe the right to a free public education is more than the legal standard in California – it’s a moral imperative. As such, our schools will continue to make it clear that any donations for essential educational programs are strictly voluntary.”

Even before the ACLU took legal action against the state, IUSD was in the process of analyzing its own practices, looking specifically at funding requests that were made to help offset the cost of transportation, elective courses, summer school classes and essential supplies and equipment. The district has since worked to clarify that parent donations for most educational activities are voluntary, and that students will not be denied participation if their families choose not to contribute. (For more information on this, including a list of 20 permissible fees, click here.)

Having calculated the potential impacts of this campaign, IUSD budgeted $3.5 million to cover programs and activities that might exceed donation amounts, with the goal of promoting equity districtwide. Meanwhile, parent contributions continue to be essential. In 2011-12 alone, donations totaling more than $2 million helped preserve high school summer courses, summer athletic camps, Extended Day P.E. and other valuable educational opportunities.

To read more about the new legislation from the Los Angeles Times, click here.


Board of Education engages in latest discussion of student fees and donations


Student donations and fees were back in the spotlight at last week’s Board of Education meeting, as the district’s director of secondary education discussed the steps IUSD has taken to ensure compliance of California’s right to a free public education and outlined the impacts of seeking donations to preserve programs and activities.

Last year, following an internal review of impermissible fees, IUSD set out to clarify that all parent donations for educational activities are voluntary, and that students will not be denied participation if their families decline to contribute. Having calculated the worst-case impact of this effort, IUSD set aside $3.5 million to cover the cost of essential programs and activities that exceeded donation amounts, with the goal of promoting equity districtwide.

Secondary Education Director Keith Tuominen told board members on March 21 that the district is now projecting $1.2 million will be used to bridge the gap in 2011-12, leaving some reserve funds available to cover future shortfalls.

IUSD had begun the process of analyzing its own practices back in 2010, shortly before the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state over improper fees, charges and deposits imposed on public school students. Though new legislation was later introduced to codify existing laws and to detail new audit procedures, the bill known as AB 165 was ultimately rejected by Governor Jerry Brown in October.

Despite the veto, Brown asserted that the California Constitution guarantees the right to a free public education.

“Local district compliance with this right is essential, and those who fail should be held accountable,” the governor wrote. “But this bill takes the wrong approach to getting there.”

The law does allow schools and districts to request voluntary donations, and that’s how IUSD has preserved some of its more vital educational offerings.

Tuominen’s presentation specifically addressed school-year programs, including athletics and Extended Day P.E., as well as summer school programs, summer athletic camps and school-based activities.

This is the first year that IUSD has tracked family contributions to this extent, he said, and the full picture for many schools may not be clear until the end of the year. He added that the impacts on students have been largely mitigated with minor changes and the use of reserve funds.

Meanwhile, parent contributions continue to be essential. This year alone, donations totaling more than $2 million have helped preserve high school summer courses, summer athletic camps, Extended Day P.E. and other valuable educational opportunities, Tuominen said.

To read a PDF recap of the March 21 Board of Education meeting, click here.


Governor vetoes student fee bill but stresses the right to a free public education


Gov. Jerry Brown recently pored through scores of legislative bills, offering his signature on some while vetoing others.

One of those that didn’t make the cut was Assembly Bill 165, which would have consolidated existing laws that prohibit schools from charging improper fees for classes or extracurricular activities. The legislation would have also established new complaint and audit procedures.

The bill was drafted in response to a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, which alleged that a number of schools were imposing impermissible charges to help pay for programs and services. Though Gov. Brown surprised many with his veto over the weekend, he also asserted that the California Constitution guarantees the right to a free public education.

“Local district compliance with this right is essential, and those who fail should be held accountable,” the governor wrote. “But this bill takes the wrong approach to getting there.”

It remains to be seen if the Legislature will introduce a new bill pertaining to student fees and charges. Either way, IUSD is committed to ensuring its practices align with the California Constitution and case law by emphasizing that requests for donations are strictly voluntary, and that no student will be denied an educational opportunity, regardless of whether a contribution is made. In fact, IUSD began analyzing the issue of student fees before the ACLU filed its suit.

“The right to a free public education is more than just the legal standard in California, it is a moral imperative,” Superintendent Terry L. Walker said. “Though our district will work to preserve valuable enrichment opportunities through local donations, we will also emphasize at every turn that all contributions to our programs are voluntary.”

For more on student fees in IUSD, click here.


Legal counsel and staff present an update on the ACLU lawsuit over student fees


At Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting, attorney Mark Bresee presented an update on the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit against the state of California over impermissible student fees. Keith Tuominen, the district’s director of secondary education, followed up by discussing the steps IUSD has taken to ensure legal compliance.

Noting that new legislation is working its way through Sacramento, Bresee said it’s important to draw a “bright line” between the existing law, which unequivocally states that fees and charges are impermissible for all educational activities, and new aspects of the proposed legislation that will require districts to set up complaint guidelines and audit procedures. Only the latter provisions are up for discussion in the Legislature, he said.

Tuominen noted that the district has sent out notices to staff and parents communicating IUSD’s efforts to move toward a donation model in which voluntary contributions are sought to preserve valuable educational opportunities for students. New information, he said, will continue to be posted on the web at www.iusd.org/student-fee-info.

To read a PDF recap of Tuesday’s meeting, click here.


Budget Notebook: Budget goes from bad to worse for California’s schools


BY SUPERINTENDENT GWEN E. GROSS, Ph.D. 

In this era of shrinking state revenue, the Irvine Unified School District has grown accustomed to preparing its annual budgets with worst-case scenarios in mind. Unfortunately, based on recent reports out of Sacramento, what appeared to be a worst-case scenario in March now looks optimistic at best.

Revenues in California have slid to previously unimaginable levels, and Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to help close the state’s shortfall by extending some temporary taxes has failed to gain traction. All of this adds up to very bad news for public schools, though we won’t know how bad until mid-May, when the governor is expected to share his latest vision for resolving the crisis. Even then, the so-called “May Revise” merely serves as a starting point for deliberations that could extend beyond the summer months.

In the meantime, educators are left to ponder what else can be cut. Over the last two years, budget reductions in IUSD alone have totaled approximately $36 million, including ongoing cuts and onetime offsets. To bridge the gap for 2010-11, our Board of Education reluctantly voted to approve a raft of measures in March 2010, including furlough days and increased class-sizes in grades one through three and nine.

Our employees have felt these impacts. So have our students and their parents. And it appears the worst may not be over.

IUSD, along with other districts across the state, had been anticipating another hit of around $330 per student for the fiscal year that begins July 1, amounting to a loss of $8.9 million locally. But there are rumblings now that the state may try to reduce education spending by $825 per student, which would be a loss of more than $22 million for Irvine.

I should note that county officials and school finance experts have informed us that we are as well positioned as any district in the state fiscally, thanks to the proactive steps taken by our Board of Education and staff. Yet the above cuts are so massive that they threaten to fundamentally alter our educational profile, and it’s hard to imagine how other districts in California would even remain solvent.

We certainly hope lawmakers will realize that K-12 education can’t sustain a raid of that magnitude. We hope Democrats and Republicans will work together to find a more reasonable solution that doesn’t shortchange our youngest and most vulnerable residents. But we’ve also learned that it’s wise to brace for the worst in California, and in fact we are legally mandated to do so.

With that in mind, IUSD and the Irvine Teachers Association recently issued a joint communiqué indicating our intent to plan for a traditional 183-day calendar in 2011-12. However, both groups urged employees to be prepared for the possibility that the state will push for a shorter school year to help districts cope with an unprecedented drop in revenue.

A 160-day school year in IUSD, for example, would save about $20 million through the implementation of 23 furlough days, resulting in an across-the-board pay cut of more than 10 percent. This scenario would be devastating for our employees and heartbreaking for our students and their families, and you can be sure we will continue to lobby aggressively on behalf of all of our stakeholders. Nevertheless, we must be prepared for any eventuality.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the state will almost certainly fail to have a spending plan in place by June 30, when school district budgets are due. That means districts, including ours, may be forced to introduce new cuts and changes to their academic calendars well into the 2011-12 school year.

ACLU lawsuit and student fees

Meanwhile, educators from Eureka to San Diego are also grappling with the financial ramifications of a lawsuit that was filed against California by the American Civil Liberties Union. At issue were fees and charges imposed on public school students.

IUSD and other districts had previously sought parent contributions to help offset the cost of uniforms, transportation and essential equipment in an effort to maintain enrichment opportunities, sports and extracurricular activities. At the same time, it had been our district’s general practice to waive charges for students whose families declined to pay.

The recent settlement agreement between the state and the ACLU has made it clear that school districts – and all affiliated groups, including PTAs, booster clubs and foundations – can only ask for voluntary donations. Subsequent legislation is being crafted to affirm that students and their parents cannot be required to pay money to gain access to any educational activity.

As a result, IUSD is working to empower schools, clubs and sports teams to seek donations in an effort to maintain vital programs that would otherwise disappear. Time will tell if this model can be sustained, but I certainly would not bet against the generosity of our community. (For more on this topic, please visit www.iusd.org/student-fee-info.)

On a personal note, it pains me to deliver these difficult messages, particularly at this special time of year, when so many of our staff members and families are eagerly anticipating student performances, award presentations, open houses and, ultimately, graduation ceremonies for our high school seniors. Let us not lose sight that these are the events and celebrations that we will remember long after we have overcome today’s budget challenges.


Superintendent: State legal settlement will make districts more reliant on donations


A recent legal settlement between the state and the American Civil Liberties union over student fees has brought clarity to a complex issue, but it will make school districts more dependent on local donations to preserve educational opportunities for students, writes Superintendent Gwen Gross in a letter to the community.

“In short, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in California, and we must do our best to adapt and remain in legal compliance,” Dr. Gross writes. “I say this not as a dire warning or even as a fundraising pitch, though you will certainly hear more of the latter. I point out this fact because it is critically important that parents, staff and community members understand why some programmatic changes must be made without delay.”

Here’s the full text of the superintendent’s letter, which was emailed to local families on Thursday.

Dear IUSD community member:

Since its inception, the Irvine Unified School District has strived to offer the most comprehensive array of enrichment programs, athletics and extracurricular activities, particularly those deemed the most valuable by our community. And while we have generally offset the cost of uniforms, transportation and essential equipment through parent contributions, it has been our ongoing practice to promote inclusivity by waiving fees for students whose families declined to pay.

This system will no longer be permissible, according to a recent legal settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the State of California. As a result, our district must now rely heavily on voluntary donations to preserve educational opportunities for students.

Allow me to provide a bit of context. In September 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state over charges and deposits imposed on public school students, citing examples from 32 districts. A few months later, the case ended with a tentative settlement agreement.

This agreement, to be codified in subsequent legislation, affirms that students and parents cannot be required to pay money to gain access to educational activities, nor can they be charged for materials and supplies necessary to participate in educational activities. “Educational activities” has been clearly defined to include extracurricular offerings such as music, sports and some clubs. Moreover, the rules described above apply to all affiliated groups supporting district and school programs, including PTAs, boosters and foundations.

Our district, which began analyzing student fees even before the ACLU filed its suit, is pleased to finally have clarity on what has become a very complex issue in California. And we do agree that some practices have been inconsistent with the state’s promise of a free public education. Nevertheless, this landmark settlement will have the unintended consequence of hamstringing districts and eliminating many popular programs, particularly in this era of budget cuts.

It should be noted that the law does not prohibit schools and districts from requesting voluntary donations, and that’s how IUSD intends to preserve some of its more vital educational offerings. On a case by case basis, our district and its community partners will be asking for voluntary contributions to help maintain the programs that matter to you, ensuring our students have continued access to opportunities above and beyond what the state is willing to fund. We hope you will support this effort.

An example that immediately comes to mind is summer school. While some districts have opted to eliminate their high school summer programs entirely, we will do our very best to preserve this opportunity by asking for donations from participating families. Course descriptions will feature a “suggested donation” amount to help cover the cost of the instructor, materials and facilities. Again, a contribution will not be required for enrollment, and families that agree to donate may do so at any amount they choose. But should donation levels be insufficient to fund the entire summer school program, some courses will unfortunately not be offered, with families receiving refunds for any contributions made while registering for a canceled course.

A number of extracurricular activities will operate in this manner, buoyed by the generosity of our community. Other programs will be relinquished by the district, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll vanish entirely. Summer enrichment courses for elementary schoolchildren, for example, will be run independently by the Irvine Public Schools Foundation.

In short, we are witnessing a paradigm shift in California, and we must do our best to adapt and remain in legal compliance. I say this not as a dire warning or even as a fundraising pitch, though you will certainly hear more of the latter. I point out this fact because it is critically important that parents, staff and community members understand why some programmatic changes must be made without delay. In addition, we want to make sure our families know how to preserve educational opportunities for students, as well as what options are available for those who believe they’ve been charged an impermissible fee. That information will be posted on a new district webpage at www.iusd.org/student-fee-info as soon as the Legislature takes action, and regular updates will follow.

These are challenging times, exacerbated by a stubborn economy that is recovering far too slowly. Yet we remain incredibly fortunate to have engaged and committed partners, including IPSF, our PTAs and our booster clubs, and I have tremendous confidence that our community will continue to lead the way in the pursuit of academic excellence, ensuring that tomorrow’s leaders aren’t shortchanged by the budgetary issues we face today.

As always, thank you for supporting education in Irvine.

Sincerely,

Dr. Gwen E. Gross
Superintendent of Schools


IUSD Board of Education discusses impacts of settlement over student fees


At its meeting this week, the IUSD Board of Education engaged in a discussion with attorney Mark Bresee on the ramifications of a recent legal settlement between the American Civil Liberties Union and the state of California over student fees.

In September, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state over charges and deposits imposed on public school students, citing examples from 32 districts, including IUSD. Both sides have since agreed on a tentative settlement with broad ramifications that will require school districts to review and modify their practices.

Though terms of the settlement will be spelled out in subsequent legislation, Bresee said Tuesday that students and parents cannot be required to pay money to gain access to educational activities, nor can they be charged for materials and supplies necessary to participate in educational activities. He affirmed that “educational activities” include those considered extracurricular, including music, sports and some clubs. However, the law does not prohibit schools and districts from requesting voluntary donations, which will be critical to preserve programs and activities in Irvine.

Before the settlement, rules pertaining to student fees were mostly found only in judicial decisions and formal opinions of the California Attorney General, Bresee said. Once legislation is finalized, the rules will be found in state codes, regulations and audit guidelines, and they’ll be printed on classroom posters. New provisions will detail enforcement measures, including complaint procedures and annual reviews.

BUDGET UPDATE

Following a budget presentation and discussion, board members on Tuesday voted to certify the district’s Second Interim Report as “positive,” meaning IUSD is on track to meet its financial obligations through next year, though a deficit is anticipated in 2012-13.

Lisa Howell, assistant superintendent of Business Services, said the governor’s plan to extend some temporary taxes is critical for education. If the extensions make it to the June ballot and are approved by voters, funding for schools will remain relatively flat, though IUSD will still lose about $513,000. If the taxes aren’t renewed, Howell said, Irvine will lose an estimated $8.9 million, and additional cuts will be necessary.

To read a PDF recap of the March 1 board meeting, click here.


Budget Notebook: New governor asks for tax extensions to ward off more cuts


BY SUPERINTENDENT GWEN E. GROSS, Ph.D.

California may have new faces in the governor’s office and the Legislature, but the revenue problems that have long plagued the Golden State look all too familiar.

For his part, newly elected Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to combat the state’s budget crisis by making additional cuts and extending taxes that would otherwise expire. But the latter will require voter approval, and there’s no guarantee that will happen. In fact, there’s no guarantee the measure will even make it to the June ballot, as that requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

So, once again, the Irvine Unified School District and its counterparts throughout California are left in a fiscal fog, waiting for Sacramento to establish a budgetary framework as we contemplate two scenarios: Plan A, in which the tax extensions are approved, generating much needed revenue; and Plan B, in which the extensions don’t make it to the ballot – or are rejected by voters.

Closer to home, our Board of Education and staff have done a remarkable job of planning prudently and proactively, enabling IUSD to certify its First Interim financial report with the ideal “positive” certification. That means if current assumptions hold, we will not need to take additional steps to produce a balanced budget for 2011-12. However, IUSD continues to project a shortfall for 2012-13 that must ultimately be resolved, and experts warn that school funding will further erode if the governor does not get his tax extensions.

So what exactly would the latter scenario, or Plan B, look like for Irvine? It’s difficult to say – and in fact no one is saying at the state level. There seems to be some debate in Sacramento over whether to publicize the cuts that would be needed to balance California’s budget if the tax extensions don’t materialize. While some lawmakers feel voters won’t be able to make an informed decision without knowing how much more could be cut from schools, Gov. Brown is opting to keep many of these details close to the vest, believing voters might cynically perceive his “Plan B” as a scare tactic.

At least one thing is certain about Plan B: Proposition 98, which guarantees funding for public education, would most certainly take another hit, possibly by as much as $600 to $1,000 per student. And that would be unwelcome news in IUSD, which has been forced to make $38 million worth of one-time and ongoing reductions in recent years.

ACLU sues the State of California

I would be remiss in not mentioning another significant development that could impact our budget. As you may have read, the American Civil Liberties Union recently sued the state of California over fees charged to public school students for a wide array of materials and supplies, including workbooks, lab provisions, P.E. clothes and athletic equipment. This lawsuit has now been settled, and while many of the details will be revealed in subsequent legislation, it is clear that schools will no longer be able to charge for many materials and supplies.

This will present significant funding challenges for programs throughout California, including those in Irvine. At the same time, we are pleased to have clarity on this complex issue. Our district was already in the process of analyzing its own practices related to student fees before the ACLU filed its lawsuit. While our mission is to provide the highest level of instruction and enrichment given limited resources from the state, we agree that some fees are not consistent with the tenets of a free public education, and it has always been our practice not to exclude students from participating in activities when their families choose not to contribute.

Instead of using fees to help pay for the programs and services desired by our community, our sites will now seek donations. This will almost certainly impact on our financial bottom line – and therefore our programs – but only time will tell to what extent. Either way, we believe it’s the right thing to do. And, as affirmed by the ACLU case, it’s the law.

IUSD begins budgeting for 2011-12

Ever vigilant of the seismic shifts that can rock our financial landscape, IUSD has already embarked on the long path toward producing a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2011. (Our budget is due a day earlier, on June 30, though deadlines mandate that many of the big decisions be made earlier.) Meanwhile, our Board of Education has wisely directed members of the district’s Finance Committee, which has traditionally offered oversight and advice, to explore potential new sources of revenue to help our schools offset some of the recent state cuts. And the Irvine Public Schools Foundation is continuing its important work to generate funds for our schools through its annual campaign. Remember that the City of Irvine is matching contributions to IPSF – dollar for dollar, up to nearly $900,000 – as a result of last year’s local Measure R initiative.

Again, I can’t say enough to tout the financial stewardship of our Board of Education, the sacrifices of our staff, the generosity of our community and this district’s longstanding efforts to maximize resources. All of these factors have buoyed IUSD during extraordinarily challenging times, positioning us favorably relative to other school systems throughout the state.

While we continue to operate in a hazy fiscal environment, our collective commitment to education in Irvine – and to the next generation of leaders – has never been more clear.