A judge rejected a motion by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) Tuesday to dismiss a class-action lawsuit that alleges the district forces students to buy their own educational materials, violating a constitutional guarantee to a free education.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman initiated the class-action lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of parents Vivian Mahl and Gina de Baca, claiming SMMUSD effectively forces students to pay for expensive calculators, field trips and athletic uniforms. Shenkman is also suing the City of Santa Monica for violating the California Voting Rights Act.

The district maintains that such materials are only suggested, not required, and that teachers typically have accommodations for students who cannot afford them. It also has a complaint process parents can use if they have been charged educational fees, said district spokesperson Gail Pinsker.

Lawsuits of this nature are not uncommon. Last June, a court declared it unconstitutional for Idaho school districts to charge students for textbooks and other materials after parents filed a class-action lawsuit.

Superintendent Ben Drati said in a statement that Judge Elihu M. Berle did not take the procedure available to parents who feel they have been charged impermissible fees into account. He also said the district believes the judge excused Shenkman’s refusal to follow the district’s complaint procedure for such fees.

“We are disappointed and believe the judge made errors on some key points of law and fact,” Drati said. “The litigation is at an early stage, and the district is evaluating its options related to the judge’s decision.”

Shenkman said he has found in the discovery phase of the litigation that Assistant Superintendent Mark Kelly, the district’s chief compliance officer, did not resolve four complaints about fees that Shenkman was made aware of through a document request from the district.

“When you fill out the form, it doesn’t result in anything happening,” Shenkman said.

He added he believes students are forced to pay millions of dollars each year for educational materials and activities. 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.

The plaintiffs will appear in court June 4 for a hearing to certify their status as a class, Shenkman said.


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