2 families sue Ann Arbor schools over fees for 7th-hour classes

08262012_Pioneer_High_School.JPGAnn Arbor – by DANIELLE ARNDT 

Two students and their parents are suing the Ann Arbor Public Schools‘ over its new “tuition-based” seventh-hour program.

A lawsuit was filed Wednesday in Washtenaw County Circuit Court, against the district asking a circuit court judge to prevent AAPS from charging students $100 per semester to take a seventh class.  

The Ann Arbor school board implemented the seventh-hour fee in June when faced with the need to cut about $8.7 million from its general fund operating budget for the 2013-14 academic year.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed the lawsuit on behalf of two Ann Arbor schools families. Cheryl Christine Coombe and Barton Polot are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit as next friends of their minor children: Paloma Paez-Coombe, a 16-year-old junior at Pioneer High School, and Elliot Polot, a 17-year-old senior at Pioneer.

Both Paez-Coombe and Polot are music students who — like nearly half of the students at Pioneer and Huron high schools, the lawsuit alleges — rely on seventh-hour classes to obtain enough credits to graduate, while also participating in music, art, foreign language, advanced placement courses and alternative career programs.

In a press release issued Wednesday, the ACLU said that while Paez-Coombe knows she only is required to take two years of a foreign language to graduate from high school, she also knows “most competitive colleges want students who have taken language classes for four years.”

“Paloma will not be able to take Spanish for all four years and participate in the orchestra program without taking a seventh-hour course,” the statement says.

The ACLU warned of the dangerous precedent the Ann Arbor Public Schools could set in cash-strapped districts across the state if it is permitted to be the first of Michigan’s free public schools to implement a tuition-based learning model.

“Our students should not be forced to pay the price for budget shortfalls,” said ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss, who also is a graduate of the Ann Arbor Public Schools. “Our constitution and courts have been clear — public education should be as ‘free as the air we breathe.’

“Allowing this model to continue will open the floodgates for any district in the state to charge for every conceivable part of their students’ education, creating a two-tiered system in which students who have money get ahead, while those who do not fall behind.”

Charging students $100 per semester for a seventh class period is expected to save AAPS $100,000, district officials said in June.

Ann Arbor schools Communications Director Liz Margolis said Wednesday at noon the district had not seen the lawsuit yet. She said until officials have had the opportunity to review the complaint, they have no comment. However, Margolis said the district is not surprised by the lawsuit being filed.

The ACLU sent a letter to the district in June calling the proposed fee for seventh hour “misguided and illegal” and asking officials to reconsider the plan to charge families.

“We will review what their objections are to it and we’ll act appropriately from there,” Margolis said Wednesday.

In June, Margolis said the district was not worried about being sued for charging students for a seventh class period.

“We wouldn’t have moved forward if we weren’t confident it was legal,” she said then.

School officials argued at the time that the state’s per pupil foundation allowance that districts receive is to provide the credit-hour equivalent of six courses for students, so districts legally only are required to offer six courses and only are paid to offer six courses.

“So Ann Arbor has had the wonderful luxury for many years of being able to pay for students to have more options and take more classes,” Margolis said in June. “But … it’s now a reality that — it’s a lot of ugly choices the board had to make.”

The ACLU contends that the fact that seventh hour is optional doesn’t matter.

“The courts have made it clear that any item or program that is an ‘integral fundamental part’ of education must be free to all students,” the organization said in announcing the filing of the lawsuit. “Since students are awarded academic credits for the seventh hour class, the ACLU contends this program clearly falls within this category.”


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