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District to Reimburse Parents for School Supplies Under Settlement Agreement

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By Jorge Casuso

August 8, 2019 -- The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District settled a class action lawsuit Thursday claiming the District illegally "requires" students to purchase certain items needed for school.

Under the settlement, the District must reimburse parents who purchased or rented school items or paid pupil fees after July 12, 2016 that should have been covered by the District under a student's right to a free education.

It is unclear how many parents will file claim forms during the mandated 45-day period, said attorney Kevin Shenkman, who filed the class action lawsuit on behalf of parents Gina de Baca and Vivian Mahl.

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Shenkman has estimated the cost to parents and students of purchasing the required items adds up to millions of dollars a year.

Under the settlement, Baca and Mahl will each receive $5,000.

The settlement also requires the District to pay Shenkman $560,000 in legal fees and $15,000 in legal costs.

"They could have avoided this," Shenkman said. "They've had notice of this (the violation) for a long, long time, and they didn't do anything about it."

Shenkman said he would "take a significant portion of the fees" to establish the Santa Monica-Malibu Social and Racial Justice Fund to help students work to further those causes.

District spokesperson Gail Pinsker said officials were "unable to corroborate the information concerning the settlement agreement at this time."

According to the suit, the District had been advised by the ACLU in 2010 that it was in violation of California's Education Code and Constitution.

In 2017, Shenkman sent the District a letter warning that the violations had not been corrected before filing the class action lawsuit in Los Angeles County Superior Court in July 2017.

According to the lawsuit, parents were charged for such things as uniforms and swimwear for physical education classes, outfits for choral performances, musical instruments, calculators for math classes, art supplies, writing utensils, paper and notebooks.

The District asked the Court to dismiss the lawsuit, but the motion was denied in March ("Superior Court Judge Rejects School District's Motion to Dismiss "Free Education" Lawsuit," March 14, 2019).

In its request for a summary judgment, the District argued that the plaintiffs failed to exhaust their administrative remedy prior to filing their lawsuit.

The judge's ruling, said District Superintendent Ben Drati, "devalued the procedure available to parents who feel they have been charged impermissible fees."

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