Guadalupe Amro loves soccer — and so does his teenage son Mario. But he doesn’t love the price tag. To play on the team at Serra High School, Amro said he shells out money for a ball and an official school uniform. Ordinary shorts and a T-shirt won’t do.

“Those are the rules,” Amro said in Spanish, speaking on the telephone from his City Heights home. He estimated that he spent more than $55 on soccer supplies for his son. “Children that don’t have the school uniform can’t play.”

It is a common phenomenon across San Diego Unified and a common gripe among parents. Children come home insisting they need to pay for art supplies to enroll in ceramics class. They want to sign up for cheerleading and the uniform is a must. But as budgets dwindle and both parents and schools find themselves pinched for money, a debate has arisen in schools: Is it just a gripe or is San Diego Unified breaking the state law that guarantees children a free public education?

It is a question that could dramatically change how schools reap funding for cheerleading, art classes and other activities — and it has divided parents as well as educators who fear that barring fees completely could cripple or kill off extracurricular activities or classes that need special supplies.

Schools are already relying more and more on parents for donations to cover their costs, especially in wealthy areas. The fear is that if optional fundraisers turn into mandatory fees, poorer children will be stigmatized for not chipping in or excluded from art, clubs or athletics entirely. One mother has pushed the issue to the forefront here, but similar questions have cropped up across California around uniforms and supplies.

“If you take a hard line and say you can’t ask parents for anything, you’re restricting public education to the point of asphyxiation,” said school board member Katherine Nakamura. “And parents who can send their kids elsewhere aren’t going to stand for that.”

To ensure that public education is free to all children, California law bans schools from charging children for books and materials that are necessary for their schoolwork. A 1984 case found that schools can’t push children to “pay to play” for sports or clubs such as drama or music either. Even if schools allowed poorer children to waive the fees or supplies, it would still stigmatize children, the court concluded.

One mother argues that’s exactly what has happened. Sally Smith, a Serra parent who sits on the school district committee on disadvantaged children, has lodged several complaints: Mira Mesa High charges students for supplies in art class. Lincoln High requires children in band or sports to buy a $20 student activities card. And Madison High estimates that cheerleading costs $1,500 between uniforms and fees.

“They’ve gotten away with a dollar or two,” Smith said. “So it turned to $10. And then it turned into more.”

A California Department of Education spokesman said she couldn’t weigh in on whether San Diego Unified had violated the law. But San Diego Unified itself is now mulling whether those and other fees cross the line, polling principals on what fees and supplies they require. Schools attorney Mark Bresee called it “a fuzzy issue.” His office is now drafting guidelines to help schools understand the rules. As Smith has pulled up more and more examples, other parents are beginning to raise questions too.

“Where is that line between asking for donations and requiring that somebody pay for an educational activity?” Bresee asked rhetorically. “When does a donation really become a fee?”

The Fiscal Crisis Management & Assistance Team, which consults school districts on financial issues, sent a 2001 memo to schools analyzing the law on school fees. For instance, schools cannot charge students for wood shop or metal shop, the memo states, but can sell materials to students if they want to take finished work home. They can’t charge a deposit to prevent children from damaging supplies. But there are some exceptions in the law: Schools can request money for camp programs as long as no kids are excluded.

Riverside Unified, for instance, has a guide to student fees posted on its website. While schools can ask for donations to help cover school expenses, “asking every student for a specific dollar amount may be characterized as an improper fee,” it advises. The Riverside guide also notes that students cannot be required to fundraise to participate in activities. Similar issues have arisen near Fresno, where parents are suing the school district over such fees, and in Pasadena, where a court found that blocking students from participating without a “donation” meant it wasn’t a donation.

“Free public education means free public education,” said Gary Kreep, executive director of the U.S. Justice Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that has taken on several such cases. “It’s the way that people who are in the lower economic classes can crawl up and get out. If you tell a family that you can’t be on the football team unless you pay a fee or purchase a card, you’re stigmatizing poor families.”

San Diego principals say there has been little guidance here. At Lincoln High, Principal Mel Collins said teens who want to be in sports or other extra-curriculars must pay $20 for a card that gives them free admission to athletic games. If that poses a problem for them or their families, kids can avoid the costs by approaching their coach or administrators and asking to volunteer instead at a campus cleanup. He used a similar system to raise money for athletic supplies and busing at his last school in Long Beach.

“What it boils down to is, if we don’t charge small amounts of money, it would deny the little transportation that we’re now able to give them. It would deny them a new volleyball net. That’s how we use that money,” Collins said. “It’s a small price to pay.”

The School of Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet school that draws students with professional aspirations in the arts, has expected students to buy a formal gown or suit for choral ensemble, required uniforms for martial arts classes and cameras for photography class in the past. But the school makes sure that children get supplies if they can’t afford them, Principal Mitzi Lizarraga said.

“Like most things, these issues aren’t addressed until there’s a problem,” Lizarraga said. “I’m really waiting on the direction from the district.”

And when it comes to athletics, Physical Education Director Bruce Ward said the problems often arise when coaches who are used to requiring fees at private clubs start working at schools.

“Some coaches who aren’t teachers, it takes them a while to understand that they can’t do that,” Ward said. “It happens all over the state.”

Parents have already shouldered more and more school costs through voluntary donations as school budgets are slashed by the state. School foundations have even covered the costs of classroom teachers, a phenomenon that has raised thorny questions about equity across the school district and whether teachers have employment rights with the school district if parent donations run dry. But the question of what schools can require is also cropping up more often — a reflection both of parents’ and schools’ tighter budgets. Families noticed that the routine lists that schools send out for supplies seemed longer this year.

“There seem to be different standards at different schools, even for school supplies,” said Laura Schumacher, president of the San Diego Unified Council of PTAs.

Nakamura said she sympathizes with the worries. She had to scrounge for Girl Scouts dues as a child. But she worries that taking the rules too far will endanger programs that make school worthwhile. Smith countered that schools simply can’t force parents to pay more on top of their taxes for school activities.

“This money was taken from innocent people that trusted the school district,” she told the school board.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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