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Published in Print: November 19, 2003, as News in Brief

News in Brief

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Shareholders OK Deal For Edison's Merger

In a move that sparked protests by some teachers and other union workers, the shareholders of Edison Schools Inc. last week approved a $174 million merger with the New York City investment firm Liberty Partners Inc.

The firm manages up to $1.8 billion in assets of the Florida Retirement System, which covers hundreds of thousands of current or retired teachers and other public school employees. The deal's completion makes them the new owners of a for-profit education management company that, while reporting its first profitable quarter recently, has lost more than $354 million over the past 12 years. ("Fla. Teachers Riled by Edison Deal," Oct. 8, 2003.)

More than 80 percent of the shareholder votes cast, or about 45.2 million, were in favor of the merger. Almost 10 million votes were cast against the plan, under which the company will again be privately held. Edison was founded in 1992 and completed an initial public offering of its stock in 1999.

"Today's vote is an important step in an exciting new chapter in Edison's history," Christopher Whittle, the founder and chief executive officer of the New York City-based Edison, said in a statement. "As we return to being a private company, Edison's mission ... remains unchanged."

Six unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, protested the deal, pointing to Edison's troubled history. Besides financial losses, the company underwent an accounting inquiry by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Union officials are also concerned about investing in a company that has laid off public school employees in the past.

—Rhea J. Borja

Baltimore Schools to Lay Off Up to 1,000 Employees

Leaders of the Baltimore public schools plan to lay off up to 1,000 employees in what observers say will be the most radical restructuring of the system in two decades.

Bonnie S. Copeland, the interim head of the 93,000-student system, on Nov. 11 was named the chief executive officer for the next two years by a unanimous school board vote.

Ms. Copeland announced the next day that a smaller administrative staff at central headquarters was needed to operate more efficiently. The system expects to lay off up to 1,000 of the district's 12,000 employees by January. The restructuring is part of a school board plan to address major financial problems in the district, and administrators will be asked to operate departments with half their current staffing.

The plan drew praise from Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland's state superintendent of schools, and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley as being long overdue.

The school board abruptly ended a national search for a superintendent, which began a month ago, to appoint Ms. Copeland to the job.

—John Gehring

Miami-Dade Schools, Union Agree on Raises for Teachers

The Miami-Dade County school district and its teachers' union have tentatively agreed on a contract that caps six difficult months for United Teachers of Dade with a deal that gives the teachers much of what they asked for.

If the main terms of the contract are extended to the 363,000-student district's four other unions, as expected, the pacts would cost the district $11 million more than the $45 million that was budgeted for raises this year, according to Superintendent Merrett Stierheim.

The contract still must be ratified by the school board and the union's membership.

The four-year pact provides "step" raises for the last school year and the current one ranging from $500 to $5,850, depending on level of experience. For most teachers, that is equivalent to increases of between 1.5 percent and 3 percent of their current salaries. The contract also includes a reduction in health-insurance costs for teachers.

News of the deal comes as the union tries to recover from a financial scandal in which former longtime President Pat L. Tornillo Jr. pleaded guilty last month to stealing more than $3 million from the labor group, which is affiliated with both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

—Bess Keller

Okla. District Sued Over Student Who Wants to Wear Head Veil

The parents of a Muslim 6th grader who was suspended in October for wearing a veil to school have filed a lawsuit against the 6,300-student Muskogee, Okla., school district.

The suit—filed last month in the U.S. District Court in Muskogee by the Rutherford Institute, a Charlottesville, Va.- based legal-advocacy group—alleges that the district violated Nashala Hearn's right to freedom of religion. It requests that the girl be allowed to wear a veil in school and have her record expunged.

Schools officials say that the girl was suspended for violating the school's dress code, which prohibits students from wearing any kind of head garb. She was allowed to return to school, but the district and her parents failed to reach an agreement on the issue. ("Okla. District, Muslim Student Dispute Head Scarf," Oct. 22, 2003.)

—Marianne D. Hurst

Illinois District Closes Schools As Talks With Teachers Cease

Classes in Illinois' Park Ridge-Niles Elementary School District 64 were canceled last week after teachers staged a strike in response to a breakdown in contract negotiations centered in a dispute over pay raises and health insurance.

Teachers in the 4,400-student district northwest of Chicago are seeking salary increases averaging about 6 percent a year over the next three years, according to Cheryll DeYoung, a spokeswoman for the district. The teachers also object to proposed changes that would require those with individual health coverage, who now pay nothing, to make a $231 annual contribution.

The district has offered salary increases of about 3.4 percent for each of the next three years, Ms. DeYoung said. District officials fear that the demands made by the 360 teachers, represented by the Park Ridge Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, would leave the district with an $11.5 million deficit over the next six years, Ms. DeYoung said.

A teachers' representative could not be reached for comment.

—Sean Cavanagh

Chicago Agreement Aimed At Avoiding Teacher Strike

Leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union and school district administrators announced late last week that they had reached a tentative contract agreement, which they hope will avert the city's first teachers' strike in 16 years.

No details of the deal will be released until the 33,000 members of the union have seen it, said Jay Rehak, a union spokesman. Members will vote on the proposed contract later this month.

The union's House of Delegates voted on Oct. 29 to authorize a walkout and will ask members to approve such a move on Nov. 18. A strike by the American Federation of Teachers affiliate could begin as early as Dec. 4 if the contract isn't approved.

For the first time in union history, members last month rejected a five-year contract. At issue were salary raises, the cost of health insurance, and the length of the deal.

—Julie Blair

Magazines Agree to Remove Tobacco Ads From School Issues

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer of New York state has announced a deal that will remove tobacco advertising from three major newsmagazines that are sent to schools for use in educational programs.

The agreement covers versions of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report designed for schools. All three publishing companies provide either free or low-cost copies of the magazines for use in social studies classes and school libraries.

"The presence of tobacco ads in these publications was a clear violation of the national tobacco settlement agreement, which explicitly prohibits marketing activities that target youth," Mr. Spitzer said in a Nov. 10 statement. "I am pleased that the companies agreed to our demand that they discontinue their ads in these school editions."

Under the agreement with the state attorney general, Philip Morris USA Inc., the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., and the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co. will remove all tobacco advertising from the school editions of the three magazines. A fourth company, the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., which advertised in Time and Newsweek, has agreed to remove its ads from the school editions of those magazines.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Struggling New Orleans Pupils To Attend Thanksgiving Week

In a break with tradition, some students in New Orleans will attend school during Thanksgiving week this year.

Superintendent Anthony S. Amato said he plans to hold classes for three hours a day on Nov. 24-26 for students identified as needing academic help. Normally, the 70,000-student district closes for the entire holiday week.

Keeping students in school longer is a favorite tactic for Mr. Amato, who came to New Orleans from the Hartford, Conn., public schools last winter. ("Amato to Run New Orleans Schools," Feb. 12, 2003.)

As the chief of the 24,500-student system in the Connecticut capital, he extended the school day and held Saturday classes for struggling students—a strategy he's said he wants to replicate in New Orleans.

Even students who aren't called back for classes on Monday through Wednesday of next week won't escape schoolwork: Mr. Amato will require daily homework assignments for all the district's students.

—Jeff Archer

Vol. 23, Issue 12, Page 4

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