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Published in Print: December 3, 2003, as News in Brief: A National Roundup

News in Brief: A National Roundup

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IRS Said to Be Investigating Union's Political Spending

The Internal Revenue Service has launched an investigation of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union confirmed last week.

A Nov. 24 Associated Press article reported that the IRS was looking into the possibility that the Washington-based NEA had evaded paying taxes on political expenditures.

A union spokeswoman, Barbara Parker, confirmed that an audit was occurring, but would not comment on what had prompted it.

The Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative legal-advocacy group based in Kansas City, Mo., filed complaints in 2000 with the IRS and the Federal Election Commission alleging that the union had made scores of politically related expenditures but had failed to report them to the government. ("Complaints Point Up 'Murky' Areas in Union Activism," Nov. 1, 2000.)

"We don't know what will be audited or the scope," Ms. Parker told Education Week. She added that audit would be "complete and thorough" and would likely take years.

An IRS spokesman said the federal agency could neither confirm nor deny that it was performing the audit, because tax matters are confidential.

The FEC decided last year not to take action against the union in connection with the Landmark complaint.

—Julie Blair

Los Angeles School Board Seeks Construction Bond

Los Angeles voters will be asked to support a $3.87 billion bond issue next year to renovate and build new classrooms.

The school board of the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed unanimously last month to put the bond issue on the March 2 ballot.

Under the plan, the 750,000-student district would set aside more than half the money for new school construction, while another $1.5 billion would be earmarked for repairs and upgrades to existing facilities.

The ballot measure would create 49,000 new classroom seats, the equivalent of roughly 50 schools. The added capacity could allow the district to return to a traditional, nine-month school calendar. The district also will be eligible for $1.5 billion in matching state aid if the bond measure is approved.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Parent Liaisons Hard to Reach, N.Y.C. Survey Results Suggest

Hired in August to help serve as liaisons between parents and their schools, the New York City school district's parent coordinators are difficult to reach and don't always return phone calls, according to a survey conducted by Betsy Gotbaum, the city's public advocate.

Staff members for Ms. Gotbaum, an elected official, called 103 parent coordinators across the five boroughs of the city. Two-thirds of them were unreachable after school hours, and more than half did not respond to their messages.

"We were promised a bright new day in our public schools," Ms. Gotbaum said in a press release last month. "Instead we're getting the same old runaround."

She recommended that the district enforce the hours that the coordinators are supposed to be working after school and make sure parents are aware of the contact information. ("N.Y.C. Puts 1,200 New Parent Liaisons in Schools," Sept. 17, 2003.)

A written response from the 1.1 million-student district said the feedback would be used to continually improve progress.

—Linda Jacobson

Detroit Mayor Unveils Plan For Control of City Schools

Mayor Kwame M. Kilpatrick of Detroit wants direct control over his city's public schools.

Mr. Kilpatrick's proposal would give the mayor the authority to hire and fire the 157,000-student district's chief executive officer. An elected school board with limited powers would replace the current appointed body. The mayor unveiled his plan, which requires the approval of the Michigan legislature, during a televised speech on Nov. 18.

While the CEO would be accountable to the mayor, the new, nine-member board would serve in an advisory role, monitoring student performance and reviewing the district's budget.

A 1999 state law replaced Detroit's seven-member, elected board with one appointed largely by the mayor. Detroit voters are set to decide in a referendum next year whether to retain the appointed seven-member board.

— Karla Scoon Reid

Drug Raid at S.C. School Sparks State Police Probe

The question of whether local police and a principal went too far during a drug raid at a South Carolina high school has divided a small community and prompted an investigation by a state law-enforcement agency.

At issue is a sweep in which more than 100 students at Stratford High School in Berkeley County were ordered to crouch in a hallway, some restrained with plastic handcuffs, while 14 police officers and a dog searched for drugs.

Some parents and civil rights groups have accused the Goose Creek police department of using excessive force during the Nov. 5 search and of targeting black students. The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division is investigating the officers' tactics at the request of the Berkeley County sheriff's office and the county solicitor, a spokeswoman for the state agency said.

For several days before the sweep, drug activity had been reported and observed through electronic surveillance at the 2,700-student high school, located a few miles north of Charleston, according to a Nov. 10 statement from Berkeley County school district officials. No drugs were found, and no arrests were made.

The state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called for the resignation of Stratford High Principal George C. McCrackin. Mr. McCrackin, however, had pointed out that police had never drawn their weapons in previous drug sweeps, and district officials say there are currently no plans to replace him as principal.

—Darcia Harris Bowman


Portland Seeks Views on Search For New Schools Superintendent

As the Portland, Ore., district searches for a new superintendent, the school board is seeking public input from parents, students, and teachers through an online survey.

The survey, which can be found on the district's Web site at www.pps.k12.or.us/.docs/pg/3402 , asks about characteristics for a new superintendent and what the community views as the greatest strengths and challenges of the public schools.

The 53,000-student system is conducting its second search for a superintendent in two years. Last year, finalists for the job met with community groups nearly 20 times, but ultimately removed their names from contention. ("Top Contenders Withdraw From Portland Search," May 1, 2002.)

The school board hopes to hire a new superintendent by spring to replace James Scherzinger, who will retire in June.

—John Gehring


Chemistry Teacher Suspended for Having Students Vomit Milk

A chemistry teacher in Johnston County, N.C., was suspended with pay after an experiment went exactly as planned: Students vomited after drinking excessive quantities of milk.

Jeff Ferguson intended to illustrate for his honors class how the body regulates acid through involuntary mechanisms.

The students who volunteered to participate drank the milk until they started to feel ill, the body's normal reaction to a pH imbalance caused by the mildly acidic liquid. Some of the students vomited during the Nov. 12 experiment.

Mr. Ferguson, who has been teaching at Smithfield-Selma Senior High School since the 2001-02 school year, had read about a teacher in Ohio using the lesson without complaint.

The experiment was not dangerous to the students, said Lamar Armstrong, Mr. Ferguson's lawyer. A local judge refused to issue an order that would have allowed the teacher to remain in the classroom pending an investigation of up to 90 days, despite expressions of support from students.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Vol. 23, Issue 14, Page 4

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