Districts News Roundup

February 28, 1990 6 min read

Milwaukee school officials, who preside over one of the oldest and most widely studied magnet-school plans in the nation, are considering scrapping that system in favor of a “controlled choice” student-assignment plan similar to those implemented this year in Boston and Seattle.

The “controlled choice” plan, which was proposed to the board of education earlier this month, is designed to address both the inequities and confusion that have arisen as the number of magnet and specialty schools in the district has grown, officials said.

Twenty-two of the district’s schools that have remained predominantly black under the current desegregation plan are expected to become integrated for the first time under the new plan, if it is adopted.

The new plan would eliminate traditional neighborhood school assignments, and require all students to choose schools located in one of two large attendance zones. It also aims to reduce total busing costs, decrease the disproportionate burden of transportation on black students, and create a mechanism for “school based” improvements in schools that fail to attract racially balanced enrollments.

In an effort to avoid the implementation problems that have plagued ''controlled choice” plans in other cities, the authors of the plan have recommended that assignments under the new plan not begin until the 1992-93 school year, after extensive staff and community training and a balancing of educational offerings in the two zones are completed.

The plan has the backing of the superintendent, Robert S. Peterkin, former superintendent of schools in Cambridge, Mass., which pioneered the “controlled choice” concept. The Milwaukee board is not expected to act on the proposal before April.

Large numbers of teachers and students in the St. Helena Parish of Louisiana boycotted classes last week to protest the local school board’s decision not to renew the contract of Perry Spears, the district’s black superintendent.

About 75 percent of the student body, or 1,400 students, and half the teaching force staged the weeklong boycott and several protests and rallies to register their dissatisfaction with the board, which has refused to reveal its reasons for dismissing Mr. Spears.

The situation began drawing national attention late last week in the wake of a similar situation in Selma, Ala. (See Education Week, Feb. 21, 1990.)

The four white and two black board members voted along racial lines on Jan. 2 not to renew Mr. Spears’s contract, which expires June 30.

The board also moved to hire a principal in the district to become the superintendent. According to Mr. Spears, the board instructed him to work until the end of his contract and assured him that he would be paid for his accrued days of annual leave.

At a Feb. 6 meeting, however, the board voted to place Mr. Spears on leave with pay effective Feb. 23. In response, Mr. Spears’s lawyer filed suit in state court and requested a temporary restraining order blocking the board’s action. The judge granted the order and set a court date for this week.

Although the board has not explained the dismissal to Mr. Spears or the public, Mr. Spears said last week that there has been dissension on the board since schools were consolidated last year to meet court-ordered desegregation guidelines.

The Tucson, Ariz., school district may be forced to lay off as many as 800 employees because district voters rejected two property-tax measures last week.

The district had asked voters to approve two measures that would have boosted the school budget by $24 million. State law permits districts to ask voters to approve local taxes that increase their state-mandated budget limit by up to 10 percent.

Local voters had approved a five-year tax increase in 1985, but attempts to extend it in 1987 and 1989 were defeated.

School officials said that between $16 million and $23 million will have to be cut from next year’s budget to make up the shortfall.

A Minnesota school district that punishes students for attending parties where alcohol is served is being sued in federal court by a student and the Minnesota Civil Liberties Union.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court by Keri Bush, a 17-year-old senior represented by the m.c.l.u., alleges that the Dassel-Cokato School District violated the student’s First Amendment right to free association by punishing her for being at a party where alcohol was served, even though she did not drink.

Police informed school officials that Ms. Bush had been seen at the party last June. They found no alcohol in her possession and filed no charges against her. Following the incident, school officials suspended Ms. Bush from two swim meets and revoked her athletic letter in softball.

The student is suing to have the policy changed and her school record expunged.

Five former school-cafeteria workers in Texas have filed a $1.5-million federal lawsuit against their district, alleging that they were fired after refusing to volunteer to cook for school-board members.

All five plaintiffs are women. The suit charges that the firing resulted from sexual discrimination and violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights. It also cites a Texas law that protects whistleblowers, according to the plaintiffs’ lawyer.

The workers claim that they were asked to sign an agreement to cook meals after hours without pay for school-board meetings. When they refused, they were not allowed back to work, they said.

The suit was filed in federal district court in Midland against the Greenwood Independent School District in Midland County. Greenwood school officials had no comment last week on the lawsuit.

San Antonio school-district officials have granted a 10-year tax abatement to a theme park in exchange for scholarships and fund-raising assistance.

Trustees of the city’s Northside school6district approved the package by a 6-to-1 vote.

Under the agreement, Opryland USA Inc. will receive a tax abatement worth about $4.5 million, according to a district spokesman. In return, the district gets upward of $250,000 in discretionary funds, used vans from the park, permission to use park grounds for school activities and fund-raising events, and about 10 acres of undeveloped land for future use or sale.

Teachers in the district reportedly were pleased with the plan because the discretionary funds can be used for any purpose, including teacher salaries or bonuses. An earlier plan had earmarked that money for student scholarships.

The park is scheduled to open in 1992. State and county officials had already approved the abatement.

The Irving, Tex., school board is reviewing a proposed policy to allow students to hold noncurriculum-related meetings, including religious prayer sessions, on its school campuses.

Several Christian clubs met regularly at Irving schools for many years until one student’s family complained about the policy late last year to officials at the Texas Education Agency.

The superintendent of the Irving district, Jack Singley, decided to bar the clubs from the schools because he believed that they violated the ban on establishment of religion in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Mr. Singley said no school-board policy authorized any noncurriculum-related group to meet in the schools.

The question of whether schools that allow other noncurriculum-related clubs must also allow student religious groups is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Late last month, the school board asked administrators to devise a legal way to allow religious groups to meet at schools in the district.

Mr. Singley said that a policy outline was presented to board members this month, and that a more formal policy will be put before the board in March.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as Districts News Roundup