News in Brief: A National Roundup
N.J. Voters Pass Record Number of School Budgets
New Jersey voters approved a record number of local school budgets in statewide voting last week. The 88 percent passage rate was the highest in state history, surpassing the previous high of 86.5 percent in 1977.
State officials and observers attributed the success to the state's strong economy, increased state aid, and a sense of confidence in the stewardship over schools by local school boards.
One highlight of the April 18 results came out of the 1,280-student Wallington school district, where voters passed the school budget—a $10.9 million plan—for the first time in 30 years.
Statewide, the fates of 553 school budgets worth $14 billion were decided last week. Districts whose voters rejected budgets must now submit their plans to their municipal officials, who can renegotiate, reject, or approve local school budgets.
Just 12 percent of voters turned out for this year's elections, the lowest proportion since 1987, when turnout was 10.1 percent. State Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe called last week's turnout "unacceptably low."
—Robert C. Johnston
Pittsburgh Chief's Pact Ratified
After postponing a final vote earlier this month, the Pittsburgh school board last week officially hired John Thompson as the superintendent of the 40,000-student Pennsylvania district.
By a 5-0 vote with four abstentions, the board ratified a five-year contract that will pay the former Tulsa, Okla., superintendent a base salary of $175,000. The deal includes an annual raise of $2,500 and a still-to-be-negotiated performance bonus, after two years, of up to 10 percent of his salary.
The split vote by the board did not reflect disagreement over the hiring of Mr. Thompson, but represented frustration by some board members at how quickly the final contract was put together, a district official said.
In exchange for Mr. Thompson's agreement not to seek employment outside the district while he is the superintendent, the board also agreed to pay him $350,000 if it decides to dismiss him before his contract expires in 2005.
—Robert C. Johnston
No Charges in 1st Grade Plot
No charges will be filed against three 1st grade girls in Lake Station, Ind., who allegedly plotted to kill another girl. The apparent plot was uncovered this month when the mother of the intended 7-year-old victim notified Virgil I. Bailey Elementary School of her suspicions.
The three girls admitted to police they had planned to kill their classmate by luring her to a wooded area near the 200-student school to shoot, hang, or stab her, according to Lake Station Superintendent of Schools Charles J. Costa. In a search of the school and, with the parents' help, of the students' homes, investigators found two drawings they said were too childish to be termed maps that showed the woods in which the killing was to have occurred. No weapons were found.
The three students, all of whom are also 7, withdrew from the school April 17. After meeting with police, the Lake Station prosecutor, Bernard Carter, decided not to file charges against the girls because of their age.
Journalism Award Announced
The top prize in the 1999 National Awards for Education Reporting, sponsored by the Education Writers Association,went to Tim Simmons for an article that appeared in The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer. Mr. Simmons won for "Worlds Apart: The Racial Education Gap," a series published last November showing how and why African-American students lag academically behind white classmates regardless of income.
The Fred M. Hechinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting carries a $1,000 cash award and is presented to one of the first-place winners in the EWA's annual journalism contest, which honors education reporting published or broadcast in the past year.
Mr. Simmons' article was chosen from among dozens of winners who received plaques at a banquet April 15 during the EWA's Atlanta convention.
Education Week received a special citation for its year-long series "Lessons of a Century."
Teachers Trim Extra Work
Contract talks between Boston school officials and the city teachers' union heated up this month when 400 union representatives voted unanimously that teachers would stop volunteering for school-related duties not called for in their contract. The policy will go into effect May 1.
The vote April 12 by representatives of the Boston Teachers Union, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, was meant to call attention to what the union sees as slow progress on negotiations over a contract to replace the one that expires Aug. 31.
Some 5,600 teachers and other staff will be covered by the vote. Edward Doherty, the union's president. said teachers in the 63, 000-student district will take further action if there is not a contract next fall. Michael Contompasis, the chief operating officer for the Boston schools, said that is unfortunate that the union action came so early in contract talks.
—Robert C. Johnston
Boy Receives Teacher's Kidney
Jane Smith gave the gift of life to one of her students April 14, in the form of a donated kidney.
On the playground earlier this school year, the 8th grader told Ms. Smith that he had one kidney that functioned minimally and one that had failed to grow because of a condition known as renal dysplasia. She responded by offering to donate one of her own.
Ms. Smith, a science teacher at R. Max Abbott Middle School in Fayetteville, N.C., was released April 17 from UNC Hospitals in Chapel Hill. The student, Michael Carter, was released April 19.
Mr. Carter, 15, is a student in Ms. Smith's science class and homeroom. He had been undergoing dialysis since June 1998.
Suit Over LeTourneau Planned
The parents of a student who fathered two children by his former elementary school teacher announced this month that they intend to sue his school district and the city of Des Moines, Wash., for allegedly failing to protect him from the teacher's sexual advances. The teenager's parents are seeking $1 million in damages, claiming emotional suffering and the expense of raising the two children.
The parents of Vili Fualaau, now 16, say that the Highline district in suburban Seattle was negligent in hiring and retaining 38-year-old Mary Kay LeTourneau, who is serving a 7 1/2-year prison sentence for child rape. The highly publicized case is among many nationwide that have highlighted the issue of teacher sexual misconduct with students. ("Sex With Students: When Employees Cross the Line," Dec. 2, 1998.)
The parents have also charged the Des Moines city officials with negligence for failing to separate the boy, then 12, from Ms. LeTourneau after discovering the pair in a parked van.
Patricia Buchanan, the lawyer representing the 17,900-student district, last week dismissed the parents' claims that school officials were negligent. She said that Ms. LeTourneau "was qualified for the position" when hired, and that "she was supervised properly."
Teacher Charged With Vandalism
A Virginia high school teacher was arrested April 14 on charges that he had led two students on a late-night vandalism spree.
Robert Gaige, 23, an English teacher at the 1,220-student Brentsville District Middle/Senior High School in Nokesville, Va., along with two male students, allegedly smashed mailboxes and threw a bottle of wine at the window of a convenience store.
Mr. Gaige was charged with two counts of contributing to the delinquency of minor and nine counts of destruction of private property. The misdemeanor charges could bring a penalty of up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine. The students were charged with destruction of property.
Mr. Gaige has been placed on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation. Neither Mr. Gaige nor his lawyer could be reached for comment.
—Adrienne D. Coles
Bus-Crash Footage Sought
A Georgia school district has turned to the courts in an attempt to gain access to eight videotapes from a camera mounted in the school bus that collided March 28 with a 33-car CSX freight train near the Georgia-Tennessee border. The accident killed three children and severely injured two others. ("News in Brief: School Bus Did Not Stop, NTSB Says," April 5, 2000.)
The Murray County district filed suit against the Tennessee Highway Patrol, which seized the tapes, in Bradley County Chancery Court in Cleveland, Tenn., earlier this month. Jerry N. Estes, the district attorney general for Tennessee's 10th Judicial District, was subpoenaed to bring the tapes to an April 20 court hearing.
Tennessee Attorney General Paul Summers is seeking dismissal both of the lawsuit and of the subpoena for Mr. Estes.
The bus driver, Rhonda Cloer, 34, has refused to cooperate with investigators until she sees the tapes. Although no charges have yet been filed, the National Transportation Safety Board reached a preliminary conclusion that Ms. Cloer did not stop the bus at the crossing.
Vol. 19, Issue 33, Page 4