Two parents are alleging some teachers in local public schools require students to purchase their own educational materials and are suing the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District with the help of a lawyer already embroiled in a lawsuit against the City of Santa Monica.

Gina de Baca and Vivian Mahl initiated the pending class action lawsuit and are represented by Kevin Shenkman.

Shenkman is the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in a California Voting Rights Act case against the City that claims its election system discriminates against minorities. Now, Shenkman is taking SMMUSD to court on the grounds that it discriminates against low-income families.

“In California, the Constitution guarantees that public school education be free and the district has really disregarded that constitutional right by charging for P.E. uniforms, field trips, calculators and many other things,” Shenkman said. “One of the plaintiff’s daughters had to pay a couple thousand dollars for cheerleading uniforms and saw the devastation on the face of a student who didn’t have the money.”

If the case proceeds to trial, Shenkman will ask the court to require that the district provide all necessary educational materials and refund families for the materials they have paid for – which would be an eight-figure payout, he said.

District spokesperson Gail Pinsker said SMMUSD teachers, particularly high school teachers, often ask students or parents to supply materials, such as art supplies or lab equipment, that the state or district do not provide funding for. Teachers typically have plans to accommodate students who are unable to pay for materials, she said.

“We inform staff that they can only suggest materials, but every once in a while a well-meaning teacher might use the terminology “required,” Pinsker said.

Under a settlement the American Civil Liberties Union reached with the state of California in 2010, parents can challenge required fees through a 30-day complaint process and receive reimbursement from their school district if auditors conclude it charged illegal fees. SMMUSD follows this process, Pinsker said.

“We’re happy on a case-by-case basis to investigate those claims and if we find that was the case we would work with parents to make sure they get reimbursed,” she said.

Shenkman said he has documents showing that SMMUSD teachers list for-purchase materials as required and that even materials not described as such are effectively required.

“The district is required to provide all instructional materials,” he said. “If you go through calculus, a graphing calculator is required. You can’t do calculus without one. If a student shows up in a classroom where the teacher doesn’t provide graphing calculators and every other student has purchased their own calculator, that student has no choice. The teacher doesn’t need to say a thing.”

The case is still in the discovery phase and the plaintiffs are requesting the contact information of the parents or guardians of every student in the district. (Families can contact the district to deny the plaintiffs access to their personal information.) Shenkman will ask parents if they have documents from teachers that reference the required purchase of educational materials.

Pinsker said the plaintiffs have so far been unable to provide any such documents.

Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo will represent the district with Mark Bresee as the lead attorney. A judge will hold a hearing for the case on March 3 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles.

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