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New in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Minn. Gets New Chief

Gov. Arne H. Carlson of Minnesota has named Robert J. Wedl, the deputy commissioner of the states department of children, families, and learning, to replace the current state schools chief, Bruce H. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson will become an administrative law judge on Nov. 4, leaving Mr. Wedl in charge.

Mr. Wedl, 52, is no stranger to the $78,508-a-year chief's job. He was acting commissioner before Mr. Johnson's appointment in 1995 and in his current post has managed the reorganization of the state education department.

He began his career as a teacher in 1967 in the Holdingford, Minn., schools and has also worked as a special education and alternative schools administrator.

In his current post, Mr. Wedl has helped put together the governors' education platform and coordinated development of the state's parental choice program. He has worked as a consultant with federal and state officials on open-enrollment policy.

Mr. Johnson has been the target of critics who say he has politicized the chief's job, often taking an unusually critical view of public schools while working to build support for the Republican governor's voucher plan. ("Minn Agency Decried for Bad-Mouthing Schools," Oct. 2, 1996.)

Groups in the state recently called on lawmakers to create an independent agency that would monitor and report on student achievement in the state, saying that the education department under Mr. Johnson had become too partisan.

Court Ends Finance Suit

The Illinois supreme court refused to sanction a trial over wide disparities in school spending late last week, leaving the issue to state lawmakers.

A group of 70 school districts from across the state filed suit in 1990 charging that local school spending, which ranges from $14,000 per student in wealthy districts to $2,700 a child in poor areas, was unconstitutional. The case, however, never went anywhere. It was dismissed in Cook County Circuit Court in 1992 and again in a state appeals court before its final dismissal by the state's high court late last week.

Lawmakers have pledged to look at the state's funding system after this year's elections. Republicans have promised to make it a top priority if they continue to control the state legislature.

A major fix, however, is sure to be costly--far more costly than lawmakers were willing to consider when they put off a finance overhaul this year.

"Clearly, there are major problems with the way we fund our schools in Illinois, especially in regards to inequities, a lack of adequate funds in too many districts, and the over-reliance on local property taxes," Joseph A. Spagnolo, the state superintendent of education, said following the ruling. "And just as clearly, this ruling puts this issue squarely in the hands of the legislature."

In its ruling, the Illinois high court said that its decision"in no way represents an endorsement of the present system." But the system did not merit usurping lawmakers' authority.

Calif. Pension Boosted

Up to $200 million will be added to pension funds for retired California teachers following a recent agreement between state and federal officials over the sale of the Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve near Bakersfield.

Under an agreement reached by the U.S. Department of Energy, the California State Teachers' Retirement System, and other state agencies, 9 percent of the profit from the sale will go to teacher pensions.

The federal government gave California an interest in the oil-rich land in 1853 as a way to support education and as a reward for joining the union.

The settlement resolves a long-standing dispute. With the sale slated for early 1998, the state retirement fund would see the first of its five installments in 1999.

"The issue now is establishing guidelines for the sale," said Stevan Allen, the press secretary for Lt. Gov. Gray Davis. "They don't anticipate any problems selling it."

As lieutenant governor, Mr. Davis serves on the state land commission that negotiated the pension settlement.

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