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Sonoma County schools mindful of new law on student fees

For many Sonoma County students, the start of a new school year can mean new clothes, a new backpack and a fresh start.

And in this era of deep budget cuts from Sacramento, the first day of school typically means the return of the class wish list — the piece of paper that is sent home in backpacks outlining classroom needs: pencils, whiteboards, erasers, paper, scissors and tissue.

But under a new state law that went into effect in January, public schools cannot demand supplies or charge fees for most equipment and activities.

Officials across Sonoma County have for years been examining district fee and donation policies after an ACLU lawsuit over fees was settled in 2010. But the issue has not gone away and the most recent edict from Sacramento has banned nearly all fees.

“Free public education is the expectation, so there shouldn't be anything that is required to be paid for by students,” said Petaluma Superintendent Steve Bolman. “With the lack of funding in the state, we are looking for support from parents, but no parent should feel required to provide classroom supplies for their children.”

Material for art classes, wood in woodshop and gym clothes for physical education class are considered “necessary supplies,” according to the Attorney General. If the school district requires that pupils use such items, the school district must provide them for free, according to the opinion.

But educators say the new regulation is murky in some areas, and many officials are making adjustments on the fly.

Schools can't charge for materials needed for mandatory assignments in woodshop, but if a student wants to use a particular wood or if the project will be kept by the student, a fee can be levied.

“There are nuances to it,” said Doug Bower, associate superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools. “We see it from a legal perspective, but the practical implications? Frankly, not all schools do it the same way. We made a pretty good effort to get this out there and understand.”

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