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LAUSD seeks $1,761 from activist parent, places lien on home

Roberto Fonseca sits in the back of a LAUSD parent meeting in Echo Park. Fonseca claims the district is illegally excluding low-income parents from decision-making in the spending of school funds.
Roberto Fonseca sits in the back of a LAUSD parent meeting in Echo Park. Fonseca claims the district is illegally excluding low-income parents from decision-making in the spending of school funds.
Annie Gilbertson/KPCC

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The Los Angeles Unified School District is seeking $1,761 in legal costs from an immigrant parent, winning a lien on his family's house when it couldn't collect.

Roberto Fonseca sued the district in 2011, claiming top district administrators illegally excluded low-income parents from decision-making on spending school funds.

Attorneys for LAUSD maintain they are seeking to recover taxpayer dollars, but Fonseca believes the lien and a freeze placed on his and his son's bank accounts amount to retaliation for his strident advocacy.

Fonseca immigrated from Nicaragua in 1978 and works as a night-shift supervisor at Los Angeles County's senior services division.  Talkative, assertive and fluent in English and Spanish, he became active in parent groups and rose to lead the District Advisory Committee, a panel of parents representing nearly 800 school sites across the Los Angeles area.

The committee helped fulfill a federal requirement that parents be involved in the spending of Title I educational funds, the dollars designated to help disadvantaged students.

By his own admission, Fonseca said the committee was "rambunctious." Tension mounted between the parents and administrators as the committee pushed hard for change.

LAUSD Parent

Parent Kahlid Al-Alim sorts stacks of papers at a meeting of the district's new parent advisory committee. Annie Gilbertson/KPCC

In June 2011, the committee members received a letter from Maria Casillas, at the time LAUSD's parent director under former Superintendent John Deasy.

Casillas said the committee had "failed to adhere to acceptable norms of conduct." The letter notified parent members their "operations have been suspended until further notice."

The parents were asked to leave the building. Fonseca fumed.

"Throughout history, the injustices are only maintained as long as those who suffer it allow it," he said.

Fonseca and other parents decided to sue the district. All they needed was money for a lawyer.

"We did collections of money, whatever parents could give to the attorney," he said. By December 2011, Fonseca and two other parents, Yolande Beckles and Walter Richardson, had gathered enough money to file suit in state and federal courts.

The cases wound through the courts for a year and a half. 

The parents' lawyer, Robert Brown, argued the district had no authority to dissolve the committee, according to court documents. He said district officials violated the parents' right to assembly under the First Amendment.

First, the parents asked the committee be reinstated. They then sought control over the way funds for low-income students would be spent, powers held by the elected school board.

The district moved the case be dismissed. 

LAUSD's attorney Amy Osborne said in court papers the committee had no standing to sue. Osborne also argued the parents cannot show "any right to control over the budgetary process of spending billions of dollars of taxpayer money."

The judge sided with the district and awarded it legal costs. The parents had lost their case. 

"So I let it go," Fonseca said.

When parents push

Federal and state laws have required parent participation in their children's schools for decades. Research shows student performance improves whenever parents are engaged in school activities.

LAUSD has set up new parent committees since dissolving Fonseca's panel, but some parents complain their input isn’t taken seriously.

LAUSD Parent

Diana Guillen keeps an eye on her youngest son at LAUSD's new parent advisory committee. Annie Gilbertson/KPCC

Diana Guillen sits on two committees established under Gov. Jerry Brown’s new Local Control Funding Formula law, the legislation that directs more resources to schools with large populations of disadvantaged students. A parent of Spanish-speaking kids, Guillen unsuccessfully pushed for more funding for the district’s English learner program.

"There’s something wrong with the system," Guillen told KPCC in Spanish at a parent meeting last spring. "The parents know, but they don’t listen to us. We’ve gone to the board, to Sacramento and nothing has changed."

Parent Paige Schechtman said part of the problem is trying to engage the families of LAUSD's 650,000 students, a population larger than that of Washington, D.C.

Schechtman skips districtwide meetings, preferring to work with her son's school, Hancock Park Elementary School. She said principals and teachers there welcome parent feedback.

Schechtman thinks localizing decision-making could help empower more parents to have meaningful input in their children's schools.

"Outside of breaking up the district, there has to be a massive amount of independence," she said.

LAUSD’s efforts to engage parents were not effective under the last superintendent, according to Scott Folsom, California PTA board member.

"They were compliance driven," Folsom said of LAUSD actions to comply with laws requiring parent involvement. "If they had to do it, they did the minimum." 

Retaliation or reimbursement?

One day, Fonseca went to his mailbox and discovered an envelope. The court had placed a lien on his house near Glassell Park to recover the district's legal bills more than a year after the suit was dismissed.

"It means basically, if I want to sell the house, before I sell the house, I have to give them the money," he said. 

In seeking court costs, collectors also froze his bank account and went after his son’s college account last fall, according to Fonseca.

"My son calls me — 'Hey, Dad, what's going on? They say my account [lacks funds] and all this stuff,'" he remembered.

Roberto Fonseca Jr. was unable to buy books and other necessities while in his freshman year at Chico State until his father replenished the account, his father said.

Fonseca thinks the district made a mistake freezing his son's account since father and son share the same name. 

Brent Anderson, who worked closely with Fonseca on parent committees, was surprised by the steps taken by the district to recover its legal costs.

"It is kind of retaliatory," Anderson said, adding Fonseca's strong personality often led to conflicts with district officials.

“He is very, very blunt, I got to admit that. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll tell you,” Anderson said.

Fonseca believes the district was trying to teach him a lesson for his activism: "Do not mess with LAUSD. That's what they are saying."

The district would not comment on the suggestions of retaliation or whether Fonseca was being taught a lesson. Instead, LAUSD's Office of General Counsel, headed by Gregory McNair, issued a written statement: "Our general practice is to seek cost recovery, which is especially warranted when the suit is frivolous." 

Fonseca’s youngest son is nearing graduation from his high school. After decades of activism, Fonseca said, there’s one last year to argue for change.

"One chapter is closed. Another is coming up," he said. "It is the issue of injustice. It is not the issue of what is going to happen to me."

Update: After KPCC's story on Fonseca was posted Tuesday, readers offered to pay for his bill. Retired university professor Sally Stein said she was “so moved by this David v Goliath story” that she was prepared to write a check for the amount he owes. Others suggested creating a fundraiser campaign for Fonseca.