News in Brief

November 26, 2003 7 min read
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Former D.C. Union Officials Charged with Embezzlement

Two former officials of the Washington Teachers Union were indicted last week on charges of embezzling $4.6 million from the District of Columbia union and hiding the theft.

A federal grand jury indicted former treasurer James O. Baxter II and Gwendolyn M. Hemphill, who had served as executive assistant to the union’s former president, Barbara A. Bullock. Also indicted were two Washington-area accountants who filed tax returns for the union in 1999 and 2001.

Ms. Hemphill and Mr. Baxter could face prison terms of from 15½ to 19½ years if convicted. The accountants could get 4½ to 5 years in prison.

“There are a number of things she’s been charged with that she did not do,” said Frederick D. Cooke Jr., Ms. Hemphill’s lawyer. Mr. Baxter’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Bullock pleaded guilty last month to leading an embezzlement scam during her six years as president. Her punishment of up to 10 years in prison could be reduced for helping the government make its case against alleged co-conspirators, according to her plea agreement.

Two people who formerly worked for Ms. Bullock pleaded guilty in the scheme more than six months ago. Another man that federal authorities say was involved in laundering money for the officials has also been charged.

—Bess Keller

Unions Seek to Recoup $3 Million From Former Miami-Dade Leader

Pat L. Tornillo Jr., the former leader of the United Teachers of Dade who pleaded guilty in October to embezzling $3 million from the organization, is being sued by the union and the Washington-based American Federation of Teachers, one of its parent national unions.

The unions are seeking restitution of more than $3.3 million, which they say Mr. Tornillo pilfered during his long tenure at the helm of the teachers’ union in Florida’s Miami-Dade County district. (“Miami Union Leader Pleads Guilty to Fraud,” Sept. 3, 2003.) The civil lawsuit names Mr. Tornillo and his wife; former union president Murray Sissleman, who is now deceased, and his wife; and former union accountants Grant Thornton and Cummings Grayson.

“From the time we learned of the wrongdoing by the former UTD officers and others, it has been our primary goal to recover as much money as possible that was taken from UTD members,” Edward J. McElroy, the secretary-treasurer of the AFT, said in a statement.

None of those named in the suit could be reached for comment.

—Julie Blair

Teachers Return to Work After Park Ridge, Ill., Strike

Teachers in a suburban Chicago district ended a strike and returned to work last week after reaching a tentative accord with administrators in a disagreement over pay and health benefits.

Students and teachers in Park Ridge School District 64 were back in class on Nov. 17, after an all-night negotiating session between union and district negotiators produced an agreement, district spokeswoman Cheryll DeYoung said.

The strike prompted the 4,400-student district to close schools for most of the week of Nov. 10.

Neither Ms. DeYoung nor Fred Klonsky, the president of the Park Ridge Education Association, would comment on the terms of the agreement until it was made final, pending a vote of the union scheduled for Nov. 24.

—Sean Cavanagh

D.C. Superintendent Resigns, Citing Questions on Governance

The District of Columbia school board has appointed Elfreda W. Massie, the 61,000-student district’s chief of staff, as interim superintendent after the schools chief resigned.

Superintendent Paul L. Vance, 72, who resigned from the job on Nov. 14, will serve as superintendent emeritus until Dec. 31 and could work as a consultant to the school system through the end of the school year.

Mr. Vance told local reporters that he did not want to be in charge of the school system while its governance structure was in doubt. Washington Mayor Anthony A. Williams is taking steps to assume a greater role in running the city’s schools and is a vocal supporter of a pilot program that would provide federally financed tuition vouchers to schoolchildren from low-income families in Washington.

Mr. Vance is opposed to the voucher plan, which lawmakers last week were trying to push through Congress. (“Revived D.C. Voucher Plan Added to Spending Bill,” this issue.)

—Karla Scoon Reid

Evangelist’s Speeches Roil Schools in Illinois District

A Texas evangelist delivered a message against drugs and alcohol last week to students in Marion, Ill., but not before several lawsuits were filed over his appearance in schools.

Ronnie Hill, who is based in Fort Worth, Texas, was in Marion for a religious “crusade” at Cornerstone Community Church. The parent of a 4th grader in the Marion Unit 2 school district filed a lawsuit against the district before Mr. Hill was scheduled to address students, arguing that his remarks would have a religious message that was inappropriate in public schools.

A federal magistrate ruled that the evangelist could hold the assemblies on Nov. 17 and 18, but must limit his remarks to secular topics. In addition, he was barred from having students hand out tickets to a church pizza party connected to the religious crusade.

That ruling, however, drew a lawsuit from the Orlando, Fla.-based Liberty Counsel, a public-interest law firm, which intervened on behalf of Mr. Hill and the students barred from distributing the tickets. That lawsuit argued that the evangelist was being unconstitutionally barred from hiding his faith.

Wade Hudgens, the superintendent of the 3,900-student district, did not return a call for comment.

—Ann Bradley

Houston Is Making Progress In Record-Keeping, Monitor Finds

The Houston Independent School District is moving to improve the way it tracks student information, according to a recent report.

The report by Marvin Crawford, who was assigned by the Texas Education Agency to monitor how the district improves its record-keeping system, follows an investigation by the state into the 211,000-student district’s widespread problems with keeping accurate student records and reporting reliable information on dropouts. (“Houston Case Offers Lesson on Dropouts,” Sept. 24, 2003.)

District officials held many workshops to train school personnel in proper reporting of attendance rates and use of the state’s “leaver codes,” the system by which the district must account for students who leave school.

Those sessions have “adequately addressed the need” for training in the district, the Oct. 31 report says.

But in the end, the success of the district’s efforts will be determined by the degree to which individual principals demand accuracy, Mr. Crawford noted in his report.

—Michelle Galley

Federal Judge Upholds School’s Hawaiians-Only Enrollment Polic

A federal judge ruled last week that a Hawaii private school’s admissions policy favoring native Hawaiians is legal.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of an unnamed applicant who was refused admission to the independent Kamehameha Schools because he was not Hawaiian. The student argued that the policy was racially discriminatory and consequently illegal.

The 6,000-student, pre-K-12 Kamehameha Schools were founded through the 1883 will of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a member of Hawaii’s former royal family. The will stated that the school was to give preference to students of Hawaiian origin.

In his Nov. 17 ruling, U.S. District Judge Alan Kay noted that the Kamehameha Schools are private and receive no federal funding. He found the policy to be legal, saying it has “legitimate justification” and “will remain in effect as long as the needs [to educate native Hawaiians] exceed the schools’ ability to provide educational opportunities.”

Eric Grant, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said he plans to appeal the decision.

—Catherine A. Carroll


Neal Taylor, the high school football coach in Springfield, Ill., who made a deal with an opposing team’s coach to allow a star quarterback to complete a record-setting pass, has resigned. He will remain at a district middle school as a science teacher.


Edward L. Schempp, who with his wife filed a lawsuit that yielded a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on school prayer in 1963, died Nov. 8 in California at age 95.

In the late 1950s, the Schempps challenged the constitutionality of a Pennsylvania state law that required the reading of Bible verses at the start of each school day. The couple were Unitarians with three children in the public schools of Abington Township.

After the Schempps won at the federal appellate-court level, the school district appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. The high court consolidated the case with a school prayer lawsuit from Baltimore filed by the atheist Madalyn Murray and her son.

In School District of Abington Township, Pa. v. Schempp, the justices held that classroom religious exercises violated the First Amendment by failing to maintain “a position of neutrality” toward religion.

—Caroline Hendrie


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