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Court Blocks Accrediting Agency's Reprimand of Gary District

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An Indiana state court last week blocked a regional accrediting organization from reprimanding the Gary school system for its governance problems.

A Lake County Superior Court judge ruled that the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools had denied the Gary school board due process when it determined that the board's power struggle with the district's superintendent violated N.C.A. standards.

Judge James Danikolas enjoined the nonprofit N.C.A., which institutions belong to on a voluntary basis, from taking action to formally classify the district's schools as having been warned of possible accreditation loss. He concluded that such action would cause the district irreparable injury.

If the Gary schools were listed by the N.C.A. as "warned,'' the judge said, their graduates would find it more difficult to get into college or obtain scholarships, and the school system could encounter problems in maintaining state accreditation.

An official of the private association, which accredits more than 7,000 educational institutions in 19 states, said last week that he knew of no other case in which a member had sought, much less obtained, a court ruling challenging the actions of his organization's leadership.

"We hope the board has not boxed everybody in'' said Ken F. Gose, the executive director of the N.C.A., who argued that the court's injunction could prevent his organization from granting the district a routine renewal when its accreditation expires.

Benjamin R. Coleman, the school board's president, last week hailed the decision as protecting the district from interference by a membership organization that tried to loom "bigger than life.''

"They have no authority over us,'' Mr. Coleman said. "As board president, I kind of got the feeling they came in to whip us into line.''

'A Serious Breakdown'

An N.C.A. report submitted to the district in December said the group's Indiana office decided to investigate the school system after receiving complaints from people within the district of problems that could prevent Gary schools from meeting N.C.A. standards.

The school board had switched in June 1992 from members who were appointed by the mayor to elected members. A majority of the new members have been locked in a power struggle with Superintendent James Hawkins, who was selected by their predecessors.

The standards of the N.C.A. hold that a member district's superintendent and governing board should have a working relationship that enables them to be effective and that the board should refrain from interfering with the administration of schools.

After reportedly interviewing about 60 people from the district and community in October, a three-member investigative panel from the N.C.A. state office concluded that "a serious breakdown'' in superintendent-board relations had caused the Gary district to breach N.C.A. standards and was detracting from the quality of the district's educational programs.

The investigative team said a coalition of board members had "gone beyond their school board role as policymakers'' and was interfering in personnel decisions, staff supervision, and other areas of administration that should be left to the superintendent.

The team also concluded that the board majority had hindered the district's operation by strictly interpreting state law to force the superintendent to get prior approval of personnel moves and contracts of more than $5,000.

The N.C.A. was set last month to consider the Indiana office's recommendation to formally place the six Gary high schools accredited by the organization on warning for the school year. If the district failed to correct the problems cited, the schools could be stripped of accreditation after one academic year.

The board last month voted 4 to 2 to sue to block the change in its status.

Shares Information With States

The N.C.A. sent its correspondence to Superintendent Hawkins and directed that any appeals must come through him. Mr. Coleman said the board voted in February to direct Mr. Hawkins to appeal, but the superintendent took no such action.

Mr. Hawkins was out of the office last week and unavailable for comment.

"We will not have due process if we have to go through our accusers to appeal,'' Mr. Coleman said.

The judge, in ruling in favor of the board, held that the N.C.A. conducted its investigation without affording the board representation by counsel, an opportunity to confront or cross-examine witnesses, notice of the substance of the complaints, or an opportunity to appeal the investigators' findings and conclusions.

Because the N.C.A. shares information with the Indiana Department of Education, its findings potentially could cause the district to lose state accreditation, the judge said. Moreover, the judge said, a change in Gary's accreditation, once made, could not be reversed before affecting the college plans of at least one graduating class.

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