Parents who feel they were paying too much out of pocket to the school district may now be entitled to cash payouts—that is, if their claims are approved.

After two parents and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District reached a settlement of a 2017 class action lawsuit, local parents have the ability to file a claim with the school district through Feb. 10.

Representing Gina de Baca and Vivian Mahl, Malibu attorney Kevin Shenkman filed a lawsuit alleging that the school district required and collected “pupil fees”—fees account for the purchase of anything necessary for participation in an educational activity, whether that be class-related or an extracurricular activity. California Assembly Bill 1575 specifically prohibits “a pupil enrolled in a public school from being required to pay a pupil fee.”

After a little more than two years, the two parties reached a settlement—despite denial from the school district regarding the allegations. Los Angeles County Superior Court granted a preliminary approval on Nov. 22, 2019. 

As part of the terms, the school district will pay:

*To reimburse students/parents who were in the school district between July 12, 2016 - Nov. 22, 2019 who file a claim for undue pupil fees

*$5,000 to each of the class representatives, de Baca and Mahl

*$560,000 in attorneys’ fees plus $15,000 in legal fees to de Baca and Mahl’s counsel, Shenkman & Hughes.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 21, Shenkman confirmed in a phone call with The Malibu Times the number of filed claims was at least in the hundreds, with many claims coming from Malibu.

“There has been, and I think continues to be, acrimony between Malibu and the school district,” Shenkman said, calling it an “us against them” mentality. 

The school district declined to provide the current status of filed claims.

The counsel fees—totaling $575,000—drew the ire of a few and prompted a Change.org petition titled “Demand that the attorney who sued the SMMUSD schools waive his $575,000 legal fee.” The petition, created by a user profile named Santa Monica/Malibu Unified Parents & Students, demanded that Shenkman waive his fees “since the $575,000 that you are demanding is more valuable to our schools and students than you.”

Instead of waiving the fee, he was actively looking into an alternative: putting the money to use in Santa Monica-Malibu schools.

“They rejected our efforts to donate,” Shenkman claimed, adding, “They did not want me to look good.”

The school district also confirmed the discussion took place regarding “approximately 15 percent of the total settlement” going to a nonprofit organization, but claimed there were concerns that the plaintiffs would not be open to any other organization other than one “that employs an immediate family member of plaintiffs’ counsel.”

Shenkman argued that he had offered to donate back two-thirds of the fees and that the organization in question—Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID)—did employ his mother, but stressed that the school district had worked with AVID in the past. The organization helps underprivileged and underrepresented students develop the necessary skills for higher education.

“To try to pin this on a familial relationship is ridiculous,” he said, later adding: “I was trying to help those schools on the southside of Santa Monica” including John Muir and Will Rogers elementary schools.

Instead, should the settlement be approved, the fees will go toward the creation of the Antonio Gonzalez and Darren Parker Memorial Scholarship Fund.

An email Shenkman shared with The Malibu Times Tuesday afternoon detailed, “Antonio Gonzalez and Darren Parker were two civil rights champions whose untimely passings in 2018-19 have left a void in the civil rights movement in California, one which can only be filled by youth who share their vision.”

The fund will go toward funding college tuition for students with demonstrated commitment to social and racial justice.

The scholarship fund hinges on the final approval hearing for the settlement, which will be held on March 10 at 9 a.m. at the LA County Superior Court in downtown Los Angeles.

***

Those who feel they are owed money by the district may file a claim by visiting www.smmusd.org/studentfees/index.html and filling out the available form. The form must then be emailed to feeclaim@smmusd.org or mailed to Dr. Mark Kelly, the SMMUSD assistant superintendent, at 165116th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90404. Alternatively, the forms can be sent to the plaintiffs’ counsel at smmusdcase@shankmanhughes.com, who will make sure it is submitted.

As for what constitutes “lacked sufficient funds,” Shenkman said to consider a claim if you “would have preferred not to pay, due to the financial impact.”

SMMUSD Superintendent Dr. Ben Drati stressed that claims should be limited to “mandatory expenditures.” 

“Based on some claims received, and some public miscommunication, we want to remind prospective claimants to file as stated in the settlement instructions, which limits reimbursement to mandatory expenditures ... Providing thorough information will assist the district in assessing each claim.” 

However, in the email sent Tuesday, Shenkman said evidence of payment is not exactly required.

“Most of us do not keep such meticulous records dating back nearly four years, and it would be an undue burden to collect those records if they still exist.”

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