Lawyer on a mission to end schools’ illegal fees

May 4, 2014 by

As Sally Smith strode to the lectern, a few people in the audience rolled their eyes. Behind their nameplates, members of the San Diego school board fiddled with a cell phone, stared at laptops and rustled papers.

They knew what she would say – she’s said it dozens of times and repeats it at nearly every meeting.

“In this district,” she said firmly, her eyes fixed squarely on the board members facing her, “we have educators who exploit students to generate revenue.”

The ceramics teacher who charges $20 if students want to keep their clay art projects? That’s illegal, Smith contends.

“Taxpayers paid for this toothpick and noodles,” she said, pointing to a brooch on her blouse that her daughter made in elementary school. “Just as we paid for that clay.”

“It has to stop,” she said, her words punctuated by a buzzer indicating that her speaking time was over.

With the persistence of a gadfly, the zeal of a civil rights activist and the know-how of a lawyer, Smith has made it her mission to challenge the San Diego public school system and many others across California that require students to foot the bill for basic school activities.

She bounces around the state meeting with administrators. She blasts off e-mails to reporters – often a hodgepodge of legal complaints, case law and bemusement at those who try to ignore her. In about a year, she’s filed 200 formal complaints around the state, a huge number of appeals and countless California Public Record Act requests.

Seen as an irritant

The San Diego Unified School District gets the brunt of her focus.

“There are times where I think you can say she can be considered an irritant,” school board member Scott Barnett said. “Certainly, some of the legal staff – given the amount, the breadth and depth of her requests – I think are irritated at times, to say the least.”

Smith’s home, where her family frequently finds her typing complaints late into the night in the living room, is only a quick trip to the district offices, where most everyone knows her – or at least knows of her.

Fierce critics

Some parents, however, are fierce critics, accusing her of ruining school activities for their children, she said. She said her car has been vandalized at district headquarters, and she quips that a brick through her window wouldn’t surprise her.

“I’m not well liked,” she said, her waist-length brown hair tucked behind her ears. Then again, she said, “I’m not in this battle to make friends. I’m in it to help those kids who can’t pay.”

Free school guarantee

In 1879, California’s Constitution granted “free school” for its citizens. The state Supreme Court would later find that fees charged for educational and extracurricular activities violated the state’s guarantee of a free education.

“Access to public education is a right enjoyed by all – not a commodity for sale,” the state Supreme Court said in a decision in 1984.

Smith’s activism grew from her own frustration over what she saw as a trampling of that right.

Kids left out

One afternoon in 1997, her daughter, who was in seventh grade, arrived home from school excited about a class trip to a popular science camp near Big Bear.

Everyone in her grade was going, she said. But Smith found out that wasn’t the case. Only those who could afford the $300 price tag could attend, and that left out six classmates.

Smith took a hard line: If other kids couldn’t go, her daughter wouldn’t either. Instead, she bought the class materials to hold their own science camp. They made papier-mache volcanoes that spewed baking-soda and vinegar lava.

“The kids that went on the trip were jealous of us,” said Jessica Baris, Smith’s daughter, now 27.

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via Lawyer on a mission to end schools’ illegal fees – SFGate.

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