BRENTWOOD -- Some teachers are scrimping more than usual these days in the wake of a lawsuit that prompted Liberty Union High School District to drop student fees last year.
The district eliminated its practice of charging students to take elective courses from art and photography to wood shop, cooking and fashion design, all subjects in which supplies must be routinely replenished.
The fees also applied to gym uniforms as well as after-school sports, in which athletes paid $75 to cover the cost of bus transportation for out-of-town games.
Liberty Union's decision was in response to a class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the California Department of Education in 2010 arguing that schools were levying fees in violation of the state Constitution, which guarantees students a free public education.
In that spirit, all school districts are prohibited from charging students to participate in activities unless those particular fees are permitted by statute.
More specifically, state law allows fees for materials used in classes such as ceramics and wood shop only if students choose to take their projects home.
The ACLU's case is still pending, but it will be dismissed if the governor signs a bill that's headed to his desk this month.
The proposed legislation seeks to ensure that administrators understand the law, that parents and students know their rights, and that there is a process
Gene Clare, Liberty Union's assistant superintendent of administrative services, has no argument with the legal complaint that's intended to make classes and extracurricular activities accessible to low-income students who otherwise might not sign up for them.
"I think this is a good thing," he said. "The ACLU reminded school districts of our responsibility that students have a right to free school under our Constitution. So we're doing the right thing."
But it has come at a cost: The district not only has lost the $207,000 a year it was collecting in fees, Clare said, but now must pick up the tab for items that students previously had to buy, such as padlocks for sports lockers and cheerleading uniforms -- the 18 loaner outfits it has purchased for Freedom High School cheerleaders alone ran approximately $7,000.
Although Liberty Union is dipping deeper into its general fund to help high schools purchase the materials they need, teachers say there are still repercussions.
Lab fees of $25 per semester were an all-important supplement to the $3,500 the district earmarked annually for Liberty High School's art classes, generating approximately $15,000 more per year, said department Chairman Lloyd Cornwell.
By contrast, this year's budget is $9,000 -- about half the size of what it used to be, he said.
So, whereas his students each used to have a set of oil pastels, two or three now must share a collection, Cornwell said, adding that he gives fewer assignments to make the supplies last longer.
He disagrees with the ACLU's argument that students all must be able to take any class.
"Not every kid has to have an art class -- they can take drama. There are other ways to fulfill the (high school graduation or college entrance) requirement that don't have a fee," Cornwell said.
In any case, even before the ban on fees his department waived them for students who verified their low-income status, he said.
A less tangible consequence of eliminating fees is the chance that students will lack enthusiasm for class projects because school-issue supplies are now no-frills, teachers say.
"Kids feel less invested," said Katie Collins, a Liberty High School art teacher who used to charge a lab fee of $20 per semester. "You're never going to care as much about the project if you have no choice in the supplies you're using."
The story's the same at Freedom High School, where semester-long fashion design classes once came with a $10 fee for fabric and notions.
When Dave Behling began teaching the class last year he contacted at least half a dozen fabric manufacturers asking for donations to supplement a federal grant he received, but only one company came through with a small gift of approximately 50 yards.
This year he doesn't have any donations and says the government funds no longer can be used for consumable materials.
As a result, students who don't buy their own material are relegated to sewing their end-of-year project from scraps using doll patterns.
What's more, clothes they used to be able to keep because they had paid for the materials are now considered school property, so Behling's classes donate their finished projects to community groups.
Like Collins, he says students who rely on Freedom High to provide the supplies instead of choosing their own fabric aren't always as committed to doing a good job.
"There are those kids who really get into sewing -- they've never sewn before -- and they're not able to take the project home. They don't get to show it off," Behling said.
Video production instructor Gustavo Guardado is one of the luckier ones because the district is providing the cassette tapes and DVDs that student fees once covered.
But the Heritage High School teacher says he would rather have that money go toward buying tripods, camera batteries and other equipment than backfilling a hole.
Some of his computers have been around since the school opened in 2005, and four to five students are sharing each of them in his entry-level classes.
As for the video cameras, they work off cassette tapes and don't shoot in high definition, technology that Guardado says is becoming obsolete.
But mindful of Heritage High's tighter budget constraints now that lab fees have disappeared, he says the only money he requested last year was to fix or replace broken equipment.
"It would be nice to be able to ask for things that would improve our program, not just maintain it," Guardado said.
Preserving the status quo isn't an option for Freedom High School's cheerleaders, however.
Until two years ago, teens and their parents had to pony up cash for uniforms, T-shirts and sweatshirts worn on game days, a four-day training camp, as well as travel to an annual national competition in Anaheim.
Now the team must rely entirely on fundraising, which has resulted in much tougher tryouts: Whereas 55 to 60 girls used to participate, only 32 made the cut for this year's team.
"We had to decide what we could support," said head coach Sandra Torres, adding that they're holding carwashes, candy sales and other moneymakers almost every month to drum up the estimated $38,000 they need.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/rowenacoetsee.