More than 250 Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District families have filed an objection to a settlement that will award an attorney who sued the district half a million dollars in public money.

Attorney Kevin Shenkman initiated the class action lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of parents Vivian Mahl and Gina de Baca, who claim that SMMUSD had required students to pay for expensive calculators, field trips and athletic uniforms and therefore violated the constitutional guarantee to a free education. The district settled the lawsuit last August, agreeing to reimburse families for supplies and cover the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ fees.

Local attorneys Joel Koury and Joseph Pertel, who also have children in SMMUSD schools, filed the objection Monday on behalf of 261 district parents, students and community members.

The objection asks the court to reject families’ claims for reimbursements unless they can show receipts for the educational materials they purchased. SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker said more than 300 families filed claims before the Monday deadline but was not able to provide an exact tally.

The objection also urges the court to audit Shenkman’s stated billable hours and cap any attorney fees awarded at $1 per hour. Shenkman is requesting $560,000 from the district for 993.1 hours of work.

“If he really wants to help kids, the last thing he should be doing is extracting half a million from the school district,” Koury said. “I don’t believe he’s in the interest of students. If he was, he’d waive his fee.”

Shenkman, who also has children in district schools, said the fee reflects the time and energy that he put into the case and that he will donate a majority of the $560,000 to a scholarship that will fund college tuition for SMMUSD students who have demonstrated a commitment to social and racial justice.

The fund will be named in honor of Antonio Gonzalez and Darren Parker, two district alumni who died within the last two years. Gonzalez was president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, a Latino public policy center, and Parker served as president of the California Democratic Party’s African American Caucus.

“The people who are saying my fees are too much don’t understand what work was required in this case,” Shenkman said. “And they’re criticizing me for donating a huge amount of money to a scholarship fund.”

He previously proposed donating a majority of his fee to Advancement Via Individual Determination, a nonprofit that improves college readiness for underrepresented students, but the district Board of Education rejected the donation because AVID employed Shenkman’s mother.

Shenkman is also suing the city of Santa Monica for allegedly discriminating against Latino voters and asking that the city cover his $13.4 million fee. Over the past decade, he amassed several million dollars by initiating similar cases against California cities such as Palmdale and Highland.

Lori Whitesell, whose children recently graduated from Santa Monica High School, said she signed onto the objection because she believes that Shenkman should not be awarded funds that could be used to support local schools.

“To see this money go disproportionately to a law firm that seems to make a business out of these kinds of lawsuits is very disturbing,” she said.

Whitesell also said she thinks the plaintiffs should have gone through the district’s complaint process rather than initiate an expensive lawsuit. The district created a process to remedy illegal educational fees after a 2010 American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit revealed that more than 50 school districts in the state required students to pay for textbooks, art supplies and physical education uniforms.

Koury said although the plaintiffs’ claim that some teachers unlawfully require students to purchase materials might be true, he believes they should have worked with the district to resolve the problem.

“Are some teachers violating rules, and should we be more vigilant about that? Absolutely,” Koury said. “But is bringing out a lawyer who wants half a million dollars to enforce our rules the solution? That cost outweighs any benefit we’re going to get.”

madeleine@smdp.com

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