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State Journal: No merit; Conflict on interests

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Although he has plenty of clear-cut ideas about how to improve Montana schools, Gov. Stan Stephens recently showed that he is not inclined to butt his head up against a brick wall in pursuit of an evidently unpopular proposal.

In his State of the State Address this year, Mr. Stephens unveiled a package of education reforms, which he dubbed the "New Century Plan.'' The proposals included merit pay and alternative certification for teachers, report cards for schools, open enrollment, and reduced state control.

The Republican Governor then held a series of meetings around the state to gauge public support for his plan.

Merit pay, the meetings indicated, is about as popular as air pollution in the Big Sky Country. A report by the state education department found that 80 percent of the 2,000 people attending the meeting gave the merit-pay plan the lowest possible rating.

Citing that response, Mr. Stephens announced late last month that he would not submit a merit-pay bill to the legislature next year.

Still, the Governor stuck by his guns on another issue. He renewed his endorsement of school report cards, even though 60 percent of attendees had given the idea the lowest rating.

Soft drinks have led Washington State legislators to take a hard look at the state's conflict-of-interest law.

Lawmakers recently passed a bill exempting members of school boards from the ethics statute, which bars local officials from doing business with the jurisdictions they represent.

The measure arose after state officials determined that Kyle Corwin, a member of a Vancouver school board, could not retain his seat because his family soft-drink firm had long-standing business dealings with student groups in the district.

In response, Representative Busse Nutley introduced the bill, which would grant an exemption only to those who had been doing business with a district before they were elected to its school board.

The bill also would bar board members with such business ties from voting on contracts affecting their interests.

The bill drew criticism from State Auditor Robert V. Graham, who warned lawmakers that it could undermine the conflict-of-interest law as a whole.

Mr. Graham questioned whether board members should receive an exemption "when there are some 30-plus other types of local governments" that are covered by the law.

The bill passed both chambers without major opposition, however, and Gov. Booth Gardner is expected to sign it.--hd

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