A court hearing today will reopen settlement proceedings for the lawsuit over alleged illegal school supply fees charged by the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. The court needs to assign a new third party referee and decide on procedures for adjudicating the 334 school fee reimbursement claims disputed by the District.
Attorney Kevin Shenkman initiated the lawsuit in 2017 on behalf of parents Vivian Mahl and Gina de Baca, claiming that SMMUSD required families pay for field trips, uniforms, and school supplies in violation of the constitutional guarantee to a free education. On Aug. 8, 2019 the District reached a settlement and agreed to reimburse families’ school fees.
The court granted preliminary settlement approval on Nov. 22 2019, but proceedings have subsequently been delayed by the 334 reimbursement claims disputed by the District, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resignation of the referee set to adjudicate claim disputes.
The District received 626 claims totaling $1,632,424. The highest claim was for $552,257 submitted by Malibu resident and Equinox Co-founder, Danny Errico and his wife Vera. They are seeking reimbursement for private school tuition, a privatized home school program, private tutoring, college admission counseling and a helicopter, according to SMMUSD’s Community & Public Relations Officer Gail Pinkser. The second highest claim was $15,535 submitted by Soyoung Jung for violins and accessories, followed by $14,818 submitted by Denise Griffis and $12,691 submitted by Corlene Flanagan.
“It is clear that in roughly half of the filings submitted to the district there is a case to be made that an impermissible fee was charged,” said SMMUSD Superintendent Ben Drati. “However, it is also clear that the plaintiff’s counsel encouraged parents to submit wildly exaggerated and disingenuous forms to justify his own personal fees. These disputed claims will be examined, but it is obvious that the most outlandish, including one for more than $500,000, are not grounded in reality.”
Shenkman said the vast majority of submitted claims, including those of $5,000 and higher, are accurate reflections of school fees paid by parents for things like field trips and cheerleading supplies.
“We’ve gone through about 50 of those claim disputes so far and most of them are just baffling to me. There is absolutely no basis to challenge those claims and I tend to think that this is just kind of a last ditch effort to delay things,” said Shenkman. “The reason you settle a case is to settle it and move on not to continue occurring legal fees, because that’s what is in the financial best interest of the school district and that’s what is in the best interest of all of these kids.”
The District’s counsel alleges that the large number of disputed claims is due to a misunderstanding in what reimbursement families are entitled to.
In addition to selecting a new referee and claim dispute resolution procedure there are two additional outstanding issues up for discussion. There is a disagreement over whether a $3,721 claim that was postmarked, but not received, by end of the claim period is valid and the two parties have calculated different claim totals as the District does not count the Errico’s $552,257 claim in its total.
Shenkman is also representing Maria Loya against the City of Santa Monica in a voting rights case that has now made its way to the California Supreme Court. Loya is the wife of SMMUSD Boardmember Oscar de la Torre.
Top 10 claims:
$552,257, Vera & Danny Errico
$15,535, Soyoung Jung
$14,818, Denise Griffis
$12,691, Corlene Flanagan
$12,400, Patricia Zarwanitzer
$12,542, Jeannie Lin
$12,070, Sally Moore
$11,650, Rodica Marinescu
$10,500, Vickie Dyson
$10,222, Julia Meng
A link to court documents with additional information is available online here. The documents have been edited to remove some personal information.