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Contract Buyout of New Orleans Chief Spurs Lawsuit

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A school board decision to buy out New Orleans Superintendent Morris Holmes' contract has become the latest in a series of controversies marring the tail end of his five-year tenure.

The 58-year-old administrator has said he will resign at the end of this school year from the top job in a district grappling with unyielding academic shortcomings, alleged test tampering, and missing candy money and equipment.

The latest outcry involves a lawsuit by the local district attorney charging that the school board violated Louisiana's open-meetings law late last year when it approved a $210,000 settlement with Mr. Holmes. The civil case is scheduled for trial next month.

"To say we've had some controversy would be an understatement," board member Scott P. Shea said last week.

But board members deny that the majority-black and mostly poor Orleans Parish system is hamstrung by widespread mismanagement, saying its problems are no different from those of most other urban districts.

"We're not doing as well as we can be," board President Bill Bowers said. "But our problems are not symptomatic of a system out of control."

Still, at a time when New Orleans is enjoying a popular mayor and an improved economy, school officials say the 85,000-student district needs new direction.

Louisiana's largest district faces several challenges this spring: re-evaluating its testing program, searching for a new superintendent, and promoting a tax hike on the May ballot to raise teacher salaries. Board members do not expect to hire a permanent leader in 1998.

Political Troubles

When Mr. Holmes arrived five years ago, the $350 million budget was about $13 million in the red. The superintendent soon balanced the books and helped win voter approval of a $175 million bond issue for sorely needed school renovations. In 1996, he was rewarded with a contract to 2000 and a $25,000 raise that boosted his salary to $150,000.

His political troubles began last year, when District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. questioned the accuracy of the school district's campus-crime reports.

Mr. Connick's office went on to investigate allegations of missing money from candy sales, athletic events, and other student fund-raisers. One principal faces trial next month on charges of stealing more than $7,000 in student-activities money.

Four substitute teachers and custodians have been indicted for submitting more than $5,000 in false time sheets.

Making matters worse, a separate inventory of school equipment by the district came up $2 million short.

Though none of the investigations uncovered wrongdoing by the schools chief, the series of scandals cast a shadow over his administration.

"No one has ever questioned my character," Mr. Holmes said last week. "I'm a schoolteacher who believes in rigorous academics."

Part of that mission was raising test scores. But last spring, state officials voided 1997 scores on the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program for some students at 10 of the district's 120 schools, citing a suspiciously high number of erased incorrect answers.

Then, in December, the The Times-Picayune newspaper published an investigation that found dubious spikes in scores over the past five years on the California Achievement Test.

There's plenty of room for improvement, board members say. In 1995-96, for example, Orleans Parish ranked last in the state on the language arts portion of the LEAP's high school graduation test, with only 69 percent passing--well below the state average of 86 percent.

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