For many Sonoma County students, the start of a new school year can mean new clothes, a new backpack and a fresh start.

And in this era of deep budget cuts from Sacramento, the first day of school typically means the return of the class wish list — the piece of paper that is sent home in backpacks outlining classroom needs: pencils, whiteboards, erasers, paper, scissors and tissue.

But under a new state law that went into effect in January, public schools cannot demand supplies or charge fees for most equipment and activities.

Officials across Sonoma County have for years been examining district fee and donation policies after an ACLU lawsuit over fees was settled in 2010. But the issue has not gone away and the most recent edict from Sacramento has banned nearly all fees.

"Free public education is the expectation, so there shouldn't be anything that is required to be paid for by students," said Petaluma Superintendent Steve Bolman. "With the lack of funding in the state, we are looking for support from parents, but no parent should feel required to provide classroom supplies for their children."

Material for art classes, wood in woodshop and gym clothes for physical education class are considered "necessary supplies," according to the Attorney General. If the school district requires that pupils use such items, the school district must provide them for free, according to the opinion.

But educators say the new regulation is murky in some areas, and many officials are making adjustments on the fly.

Schools can't charge for materials needed for mandatory assignments in woodshop, but if a student wants to use a particular wood or if the project will be kept by the student, a fee can be levied.

"There are nuances to it," said Doug Bower, associate superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools. "We see it from a legal perspective, but the practical implications? Frankly, not all schools do it the same way. We made a pretty good effort to get this out there and understand."

For years, students were charged a fee for locks and physical education clothes. No more.

Students still must use locks, but now they can either be purchased or checked out from the school and returned at the end of the year. P.E. clothes can also either be purchased or borrowed and returned.

Despite the change, at Montgomery High School, nearly all students chose to purchase their P.E. clothes this year, said Principal Laurie Fong. The cost was $10 for a shirt and $10 for a pair of shorts.

Still, staff members are cognizant of the change in regulations, she said.

"We can't have any stigma of whether they buy it or don't buy it," she said. "I think every teacher is doing what they can to be very, very discreet."

Despite the tightening restrictions, teachers, schools and districts continue to seek help to stock classrooms, provide field trips and clothe sports teams and band members, officials said.

"I think people are well aware that our financial condition is $20 million behind," Santa Rosa's Bower said. "Because they are entitled to (a free education) does not mean we are not going to ask for assistance, either by donation or voluntarily providing."

Instead of asking parents to provide money for their individual student, a class or team-wide fundraiser can be held asking those who can to chip in, said West Sonoma County High School District Superintendent Keller McDonald.

"Parents who have more tend to give without being asked," he said. "That is really a donation."

Scores of teachers every year send home 'wish lists' asking for markers, pencils and other supplies. But those lists are to be clearly marked as a request for donations and not requirements.

Even that doesn't fly with some.

"It seems it flies in the face of public education," said Jane Futrell, Principal at J.X. Wilson Elementary School in the Wright School District. "Basic learning supplies need to be provided on an equal basis. Every kid should have the same level playing field to start ... I think it goes along with having a book."

In West Sonoma County High School District, officials began an overhaul of policy two years ago when the ACLU filed a lawsuit alleging that schools and districts throughout California were charging illegal fees for things like textbooks, enrollment and equipment.

"Basically, we reset the bar when that ACLU challenge came up two years ago," McDonald said. "I'm satisfied that we met the letter and spirit of the law."

Pencils, paper, pens required in a drawing class? The district provides them, he said. If a math class requires a graphing calculator, students either purchase their own or check out "loaners" from the school, he said.

"If it smells like a fee, it is," he said.

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)