Harlem faces federal lawsuit

Fee waivers for ‘indigent students’ at issue n Jail lawsuit attorney withdraws from case A federal lawsuit filed Sept. 25 alleges the Harlem School District “charged indigent families for school programs and fees without advising parents and guardians of their rights to have said fees waived.” The alleged failure to give proper notice may have cost each low-income family up to hundreds of dollars each school year since 1991. As many as 1,300 or more parents/guardians of students and all Harlem School District taxpayers may be affected. The impact of the lawsuit was unclear because key participants were not commenting or were unavailable. According to the lawsuit, the waivers apply to “technology fees, workbook fees, activity fees, driver’s education fees, required uniform fees, extracurricular and athletic fees, uniforms or equipment related to varsity and intramural sports or fine arts, graduation fees (caps and gowns), field trips that are required or are customary parts of a class or extracurricular activity, school record fees, school health service fees, and other required educational program fees.” Dr. Pat DeLuca, Harlem’s current superintendent, referred questions to the school board’s attorney, Robb Cooper. DeLuca said as of Monday afternoon, Cooper had yet to receive a copy of the lawsuit. As a result of the alleged failure to notify low-income families of available fee waivers, the plaintiff’s attorney, David J. Brown, alleges students were deprived of “educational opportunities.” Brown said: “They took money they weren’t entitled to. In the future, let’s get a system in place to notify families [eligible for fee waivers] and adjust the budget, accordingly. We’re not trying to beat up the school district.” Brown said P. Michael Mahoney, federal magistrate for the United States District Court for Northern Illinois, will set up a case management system within the next 60 days. Machesney Park resident Linda L. Young, a grandmother and legal guardian of three students attending Harlem schools, is named as the plaintiff. Young referred questions to Brown. Brown is seeking class-action status for the lawsuit. Should the court grant class-action status, Young is named as class representative. John D. Hurley, Harlem’s former superintendent who retired in July, is the only individual named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Hurley was named because he and the late Harlem Superintendent Donald Parker led the district during the time the fees were allegedly to be waived, beginning fall 1991. Parker was superintendent from 1991-1995, the year he died. Hurley was superintendent from 1996-2003. Hurley could not be reached for comment by time of publication. According to a May 29 letter from Hurley to Young, the district offered to discuss with Young a cash settlement for “past fees that could have been waived.” Also in May, Hurley said the district would work with parents/guardians who came forward to document their claim that they were eligible for refunds of past fee waivers, which were not awarded. State law requires public schools to “adopt a written policy and administrative procedures for the waiver of school fees” that “must be implemented no later than 1991-1992 school year.” State law also mandates that students eligible for free lunches or breakfasts are also eligible for waiver of student fees. Hurley’s May 29 letter to Young reads “… You asked for records showing that the opportunity for fee waivers by those qualifying for free lunch was in past years posted in the media. I find no records that such posting occurred. Informing parents of eligibility for fee waivers was left to principals and handbooks at the building level and that process was not consistent. We are taking measures to correct that inconsistency in the future. Your point is well taken.” According to Harlem’s policy adopted May 10, 1999, “The school district shall announce its waiver of student fees policy on or about the beginning of every school year and whenever there is a change in policy… .” The policy continues, “A public release containing the same information supplied to parent(s)/ guardian(s) shall be made available to the media on or about the beginning of each school year and whenever there is a change in the policy.” The policy also requires parents/guardians to complete an application for waiver of student fees for review by the school principal. Betsy Kelly, director of Harlem food services, said during the past school year, 1,279 students (about 17 percent of the student population) were eligible for free lunches. Hurley said in a June 10 interview, eligibility for free lunch, or Article IV of the Illinois Public Aid Code (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), are the determining factors for eligibility for student fee waivers (see June 11 article “Refunds from Harlem schools?”). For comparison, Jim Jennings, communications director for Rockford Public Schools, said last school year 63 percent, or 16,495 students in Rockford who are eligible for free or reduced lunch, must apply for the student waiver to receive it for that year. A May 22 article by Hurley in The (Machesney Park/Loves Park) Post-Journal reads: “Another item on the minds of a lot of people lately, with justification is the high fees that parents will be paying next year. With the loss of the recent referendums, the Board of Education raised student fees significantly in an effort to find revenue alternatives. Because the fees are so expensive, building principals will be willing to work out payment plans over the course of the school year.” For example, last year the athletic fee for participation in one sport was $50 and increased to $200 this year. Last year, there was no activity fee for secondary schools. This year, $25 is charged to each secondary school student. Rockford Attorney John F. Heckinger Jr. (J. F. Heckinger) was the original attorney for Young. Heckinger later teamed with Brown last summer. However, Heckinger removed himself from the case two weeks ago after state allegations surfaced that Heckinger “used” his clients’ funds “for his own business or personal purposes.” (See Sept. 24 article, “Jail lawsuit attorney charged.”)

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