Community, Diversity, Sustainability and other Overused Words

261 Parents File Objection to SMMUSD Settlement Affecting 11,000 Students

Koury accuses Shenkman of making a career out of suing school districts & cities. He's just wrong.

On Monday, 261 parents, led by former Rent Control Chairperson Joel Koury and Joseph Pertel, both attorneys, filed an objection to a class action settlement between the Santa Monica-Malibu School District and the parents of students who attended SMMUSD schools between July 2016 and the present. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of students who were required to pay school expenses, including supplies, field trips, and athletic participation fees, in violation of California's constitutional guarantee of a free education.

It is typical for members of a class to object to a settlement because they believe the relief offered is too little. In this case, however, Koury et al are furious that the relief is too great. They are particularly incensed that Kevin Shenkman, the plaintiff's attorney, is getting a $560,000 fee. This is money that is being "stolen" from the students, they claim. Koury disdains Shenkman's declaration that he's donating the majority of his fee to a college tuition scholarship for district students who've shown commitment to social justice. Koury wrote a letter published in Surf Santa Monica last week urging parents to decline reimbursement for their school expenses and to object to Shenkman's fee.

Shenkman is also the lead attorney in the lawsuit against the city for holding at-large elections. Koury accuses him of making a career out of suing school districts and California city governments for violating the law.

And I say...

If city governments and school districts are violating the law, go Shenkman, go! Sue the living pants off them! There is nothing less than a healthy, justified lawsuit and a decent judge that can compel any government entity to follow the same rules they force all the rest of us to follow. It isn't Shenkman who is costing the school district money. It's the school district who is costing itself money. They did not follow rules they knew perfectly well affected them.

In 2010, an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit disclosed that over 50 school districts illegally required students to pay for textbooks, art supplies, and PE uniforms. In response, SMMUSD instituted a complaint process for parents to protest such illegal fees.

But a parents has to know there is a law barring schools from forcing parents to spend money on education to know they should even complain.

I was a parent in the school district in 2010. Not at that time nor at any time since was I ever notified by the school - as teachers handed me long lists of supplies to purchase for the classroom, as registration papers informed me I had to purchase PE clothes, binder reminders, and combination locks - that I was not supposed to be forced to pay for any of this. To add insult to injury, I was instead assiduously reminded to donate money to the district.

But even if I had known I shouldn't have to pay such fees, filing a complaint would not have availed me anything. Koury claims that the parents who led the lawsuit against the district could have simply walked into the principal's office of the school and dropped off a note or filled out a one-page form to "trigger a review." He is being utterly disingenuous. Or perhaps he didn't read the lawsuit to whose settlement he objects. The whole thing started when two parents did exactly as Koury suggests, filed a complaint. They were completely ignored. It turns out every parent who's ever filed a complaint is ignored.

According to Kevin Shenkman, Mark Kelly, the district's Assistant Superintendent, admitted in a deposition that he's never resolved a single one of these complaints, which are supposed to be resolved within 60 days. (Mark Kelly denies that he said this. "Dr. Kelly has received three fee complaints in the last several years and has dealt with all of them," writes Gail Pinsker, spokeswoman for SMMUSD).

There was clearly no choice for the plaintiffs but to sue the district.

The district moved for Summary Judgment, asking the court to throw out the lawsuit on the basis that the plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies. That is, the plaintiffs should have filed these simple one-page complaint forms. The judge said no. The judge said the school district had not acted on the complaints that had been filed. By the time he made his ruling, the district had had those original complaints for 21 months. In that time, they had not done a thing to resolve them.

For as long as I've been involved in SMMUSD as a parent, 17 years ago, I have seen the way the district treats its families: with cavalier disdain and callousness. Never would I dream any complaint I ever filed would be answered and particularly not in my favor if I ever did get an answer. District parents do not directly pay the salaries of anyone who works for the schools. They have absolutely no power to compel any sort of action from either teachers or administrators. Complaints are ignored.

If it takes a lawsuit to get the school district's attention - or that of the City Council - then the blame falls on the powerful government entity that thought they could away with violating the rules. They are the ones costing the children money that could have been spent on education. They are the ones forcing attorneys to spend their valuable time writing lawsuits and motions in order to compel the school district to do what they should have been doing all along.

And the shame of this senseless waste falls on them.

Go, Shenkman, go!


Reader Comments(1)

Dogtownmom writes:

Thank you, Ms. Erdley, for this piece. Since attempting to address a concern and present a solution to Samohi Site Leadership and the District for the past three months (via emails, sit-downs, phone calls, and two Board Meetings), I understand why these parents felt they had no recourse but to sue. And to add insult to injury, they got vilified for doing the right thing. As did I.