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Published in Print: October 22, 2003, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Colo. Education Agency Spreads Good News

Hoping to spread what it sees as the good news about education in the Centennial State, the Colorado Department of Education has released a 16-page newspaper supplement on the quality of the state's public schools.

The department hopes the parent-friendly section, which was the result of a combined effort by four statewide organizations, will bolster the image of public education and highlight Colorado's success as a model for student achievement.

Karen Gerwitz, the education agency's director of state board relations, says that the report is not promotional in nature, however, and that it seeks to educate the public on statewide school accountability. "In many ways, Colorado is a national leader," she said. "We've got a strong track record of education reform."

The $40,000 supplement, which appeared in The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News on Oct. 3, discusses public school choice, charter schools, teacher quality, the achievement gap, and school finance issues.

—Marianne D. Hurst

Arizona Strengthens Role of Charter Board

The Arizona State Board for Charter Schools has approved more stringent rules for monitoring the state's nearly 500 such schools.

Kristen Jordison, the board's executive director, said the new setup would create a more structured system to document problems found in mandatory independent audits. The state uses the data to determine whether to continue a school's charter.

The board will also hire an outside company to conduct more comprehensive background checks on individuals and groups that have applied to run the public but largely independent schools. A private firm already checks applicants' credit, and the board also looks at the applicants' educational backgrounds and employment histories.

The state's charter law has generated controversy because it puts relatively few strings on the schools. The board has also been criticized for allegedly lax enforcement of its own regulations.

—Joetta L. Sack

Foundation Chips In to Study Arizona Dropout Problem

A five-year effort to study and improve Arizona's troubling high school dropout rate has received a major financial boost.

The Bruce T. Halle Family Foundation, of Scottsdale, Ariz., announced this month that it would contribute $1.15 million to the effort.

The money will fund a joint project between Arizona State University's Morrison Institute for Public Policy in Tempe, and the Center for the Future of Arizona, a non-profit organization in Phoenix. The Center opened early this year with the goal of taking on a few long-term projects that address some of the state's most pressing needs.

The first of those projects is the Arizona Dropout Initiative, which is an attempt to come up with ways to define and count dropouts, and to develop a plan to keep more Arizona students—who have one of the highest dropout rates in the nation—in school.

"We are well along in defining dropouts and working with state officials on data," said Lattie Coor, the center's chairman and chief executive officer and the president emeritus of Arizona State University. "The Halle Foundation grant will allow us to recruit a director and make the effort more tangible."

—Robert C. Johnston

Mass. University Workers Consider High-Profile Protest

Workers from state university campuses across Massachusetts are considering staging a public protest at next year's Democratic National Convention in Boston, if the legislature does not approve a long-delayed contract, according to officials representing the employees.

The employees, from 29 state two- and four-year institutions, are seeking an estimated $130 million in pay raises, back pay, and other benefits listed in a series of contracts arranged by different unions and several campuses.

Most of the pay increases would be between 3 percent and 5 percent, said Dan Georgianna, a professor of economics and an employee-labor representative at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Those contracts were to cover the three years leading up to 2004 and were approved by university administrators and worker representatives in 2001, but vetoed by then-Gov. Jane Swift last year.

Nicole St. Peter, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mitt Romney—who, like Ms. Swift, is a Republican—said the governor would review any related legislation before making a decision.

—Sean Cavanagh

Iowa Districts Could Shoulder Pension Plan's Climbing Costs

Iowa school districts, already reeling from a 2.5 percent across-the-board state budget cut, may have to increase their contributions to employee-pension funds next year.

The Iowa Public Employees' Retirement System is grappling with $1.2 billion in unfunded liabilities that cannot be amortized over the next 40 years.

Donna M. Mueller, the chief executive officer of the retirement system, emphasized that the program is not insolvent and can continue to pay public employees' pensions for the next two decades.

Stock market losses explain much of the shortfall. But, in addition, the state's pension-contribution rate for employees and employers has remained unchanged since 1979. The retirement system has 159,000 active members and 75,000 retirees.

The benefits-advisory committee of the retirement system recommended this month that the contribution rate be increased by 10 percent in each of the next four years, for a total of 40 percent—a move that could cost districts millions of dollars. Roughly 60 percent of those rate increases would be paid by the employer, with the employee paying the rest.

"We have to find a solution today and start acting on it today, or the problem will grow," Ms. Mueller said.

Now it's up to the legislature, which meets in January, to decide whether to accept the committee's recommendation.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Vol. 23, Issue 8, Page 23

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