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Judge's Ruling Could End School-Privatization Venture

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This school year could be the last for a Pennsylvania school district's experiment with private management of one of its elementary schools.

A state judge has ruled that the 1,900-student Wilkinsburg, Pa., district lacked legal authority to contract with a private company to run Turner Elementary School.

Alternative Public Schools Inc., a Nashville, Tenn.-based company, just started the third year of a five-year contract to run the elementary school in Wilkinsburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh.

The contract was challenged early on by the local and state teachers' unions, which objected to the private company's replacement of district teachers with its own workforce.

The state supreme court gave the district a preliminary victory in 1995 by removing a lower court's injunction against the contract. But last month, Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. of the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas ruled that there is no authority in state law for districts to turn over schools to private, for-profit companies.

The judge said in an Aug. 6 opinion that the state legislature's passage this year of a charter school law gave districts an option for turning over failing public schools to nonprofit charter groups. But the charter law does not authorize the use of for-profit companies, he said.

Because Wilkinsburg is not eligible for the charter school program for the 1997-98 school year, the contract with APS will be allowed to stay in place through the school year, the judge said.

E.J. Strassburger, the district's lawyer, said the district is considering its options, including granting a charter.


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