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After John Schmidt failed to pay $7 for an English book at Spanish River High School in Boca Raton, Fla., last year, officials unsuccessfully tried suspending him from school for insubordination. Officials at the same school in 1991 barred the son of Lori Ronan-Khessali from graduating because he didn’t pay a $20 health course fee. Now Ronan-Khessali, Schmidt and another parent, Charlene Clark, are among a group of parents and former students accusing the Palm Beach County School Board of violating Florida’s constitutional guarantee of a free public education. They are joined by the South Florida Educational Law Center, a nonprofit watchdog group. The case, filed in June 1999, could significantly affect the budgets of many of the state’s 67 school districts. Filed as a class action in Palm Beach Circuit Court, the plaintiffs demand that Palm Beach County public schools stop charging parents for textbooks, field trips and art and science materials. They want the school board to refund at least $30 million that it took from high school students during the past four years. For now, the protagonists agree on one thing: Florida’s first legal challenge of school boards’ practice of exacting fees or expecting “voluntary donations” to fund classes will ripple throughout the state. Not all school boards charge such fees. For example, Broward and Miami-Dade school districts do not charge fees for standard courses, say district officials. Both counties do allow fees for electives, such as band or an advanced course that uses sophisticated equipment. And students may pay an admission charge to a museum or arts performance on a field trip. According to 1998 audit reports by the Florida auditor general, at least seven county districts charge fees as a matter of course: Hendry, Hillsborough, Lee, Polk, Sarasota, Seminole and Volusia. The audit looked at schools randomly; the exact number of school districts charging the fees could be much higher. The auditor’s office questioned the legality of fees for academic courses, referring to the state constitution’s guarantee of a free public education. Auditors also cited a 1978 Florida Supreme Court decision in which a parent sued the Dade County School Board because educators capped spending for special-needs students. “These schools are funded by governmental sources and nonresident tuition fees, not by the people utilizing them, except indirectly as taxpayers,” justices wrote, ruling for the mother. “The clear implication is that all Florida residents have the right to attend this public school system for free.” Florida wouldn’t be the first state to address the fee issue. The Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 decided that fees for academic courses violated its state constitutional mandate of free public schooling. Talks to settle the dispute collapsed in September, and attorneys for Schmidt and others are “going full bore ahead,” says lead lawyer Gerald F. Richman of Richman Greer Weil Brumbaugh Mirabito & Christensen of West Palm Beach and Miami. The South Florida Educational Law Center, which Ronan-Khessali founded last year during negotiations with the board, demanded that the district not only change its fee policy but also pay $1.75 million to fund the nonprofit watchdog, according to Richman. While the two sides were close to agreeing on new policy language, Richman also sought an injunction to enforce it, said Bruce A. Harris of Weiss & Handler of Boca Raton, interim chief counsel to the school board. Meanwhile, the Palm Beach County School Board in September voted to keep the fee system and refused paying anything to plaintiffs or their legal team. The board claims the fees are legal. In court documents, Harris claimed state laws specifically authorize school boards to adopt policies concerning fees. School Board policy permits voluntary fees, but states: “No penalty may be imposed upon any student who fails to purchase a requested item.” However, Ronan-Khessali recently received a letter from Spanish River High School asking her and other parents with students enrolled in an advanced English literature course to pay $34 for five novels. “However, to the detriment of all students involved, the novels will not be taught if the costs cannot be covered,” wrote principal Geoff McKee on Sept. 27. Says Ronan-Khessali: “This is educational blackmail.” For many families, these fees create hardships, says Ronan-Khessali, a Lynn University Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership. After creating the Florida Educational Law Center, she enlisted support from Aronberg, who initially took her case for one dollar. After filing suit in June 1999 Aronberg asked civil rights heavy-hitters Richman and Rogow to join the fracas. And although Palm Beach Circuit Judge James T. Carlisle dismissed the suit on Sept. 14, 2000, because, he said, the suit attempts to micromanage the district’s funds, he gave plaintiffs 30 days to repackage and refile the class action. If plaintiffs gain class status in their suit, the price tag for past fees will likely exceed $30 million, according to the estimates of Ronan-Khessali, who surveyed 11 of the district’s 18 high schools. She conservatively estimated that every student pays at least $100 in fees a year for four years. Factor in elementary and middle school fees, and the potential costs to the School Board soar, she says. Fed up with what she considers unfair fees, Ronan-Khessali went a step further last week and asked the school board to approve a new charter middle school — Global Academies — that would have no fees. “If the school board won’t provide a truly free education,” she said, “then we will.”

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