Hundreds of local families are asking the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to reimburse them for a combined $1 million after the district settled a class-action lawsuit over illegal educational fees.
The district agreed to reimburse families last August when it settled a class-action lawsuit initiated by parents Vivian Mahl and Gina de Baca, who claim SMMUSD required students to pay for expensive calculators, field trips and athletic uniforms in violation of the constitutional guarantee to a free education. Last month, families filed 626 claims for reimbursement for educational materials, with the average claim topping $1,650, new court documents show.
Seven claims exceeded $10,000, maxing out at $15,535.81. An additional claim demanded reimbursement for $552,257.21, but the district did not count the claim toward the total $1,038,399.55, said SMMUSD spokesperson Gail Pinsker.
“We received one claim for more than $500,000 that included private school tuition, a privatized home school program, private tutoring, college admission counseling and a helicopter,” Pinsker said.
Families with students enrolled in SMMUSD between July 2016 and November 2019, the time period in which Mahl and de Baca say they were charged illegal school fees, were able to file claims for reimbursement until Feb. 10.
The district provided the claim forms in English and Spanish to more than 12,000 families via mail and email, Pinsker said.
She said the district is now reviewing claims and supporting documents to determine whether families are eligible for reimbursement and may contact families for more information.
SMMUSD will submit claims it disputes to a neutral attorney. The district has disputed 334 claims totaling $612,889.19, Pinkser said.
“To date, there is a significantly larger number of disputed claims than expected, and the district’s claim review process has confirmed that many parents were led to believe that they only needed to fill out the form and not provide any supporting documents, which is inaccurate,” Pinsker said last month.
Local attorneys Joel Koury and Joseph Pertel, who have children in SMMUSD schools, also filed objections to the settlement last month on behalf of 261 parents, students and community members. Kevin Shenkman, Mahl and de Baca’s attorney, said he also received 57 requests for exclusion and 23 objections to the settlement.
Koury, Pertel and others who objected ask the court to reject claims for reimbursements unless families can show receipts for the educational materials they purchased and reduce the $560,000 fee that Shenkman stands to collect from the district. (Shenkman, who also has children in district schools, said he will donate the majority of his fee to create a college scholarship for local students.)
“If he really wants to help kids, the last thing he should be doing is extracting half a million from the school district,” Koury told the Daily Press last month.
In a report submitted to Los Angeles County Superior Court, Shenkman said the argument that his fee should be reduced because SMMUSD could use the funds to educate students has been rejected by the Second District Court of Appeal in a prior case. Another case argued that financial hardship is no defense to a violation of the free school guarantee, he said.
“To be sure, (SMMUSD), like all school districts in California, serves a worthwhile purpose — the education of children from elementary through high school,” Shenkman said in the report. “Indeed, the purpose of this case has been to secure the right to that education free of any costs, as required by the California Constitution, and (counsel) would have preferred to accomplish that purpose without expending quite so much time, effort and expense.”
Judge Elihu M. Berle will consider the claims and objections May 21 at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.