News in Brief: A National Roundup

March 10, 1999 7 min read

Charleston Chief To Lose Job After Report’s Accusations

The Charleston County, S.C., superintendent will be looking for new employment, after being accused by his district of spending $790,000 without school board approval and of perjury on a separate matter.

Chip Zullinger

The county school board voted 7-2 last week not to renew Superintendent Chip Zullinger’s contract, up in June 2000. The action followed a 32-page district report charging that he had violated hiring policies, broken state law with his teacher-evaluation policies, and paid travel expenses for people not employed by the district. The board also accused him of lying under oath in a deposition regarding a 1996 incident in which a teacher scribbled, “Where are my glasses!” on a black kindergartner’s face.

Diane Aghapour, a board member in the 45,000-student district, said Mr. Zullinger had the best of intentions in serving children, but also exercised poor financial controls and showed a “looseness with the policies.”

Mr. Zullinger contends that he never spent more than he was budgeted and that he did not commit perjury.

--Julie Blair

Detroit Closer to Mayoral Control

Michigan Gov. John Engler’s bid to transfer authority over the Detroit schools to Mayor Dennis W. Archer passed easily in the state Senate last week.

First announced by Mr. Engler, a Republican, in mid-January, the legislation would dissolve the city’s 11-member elected school board and allow the mayor, a Democrat, to appoint a seven-member schools panel. The new panel would be charged with hiring a chief executive to run the schools and overseeing reforms in the 178,000-student system. After five years, Detroit voters could choose to revert to an elected school board. (“Power Shift for Detroit Moves Ahead ,” March 3, 1999.)

Despite the 30-7 Senate vote, the bill faces stiff opposition in the House from Detroit’s representatives, many of whom have charged that the governor is racially insensitive toward the majority-black city.

The House was scheduled to take up the bill this week.

--Kerry A. White

Md. Sets Bar High for Teachers

Maryland’s state school board has set the nation’s second-highest qualifying scores on the PRAXIS exam used to screen new teachers.

Only Virginia requires higher scores on the mathematics and reading portions of the test series, which Maryland has adopted to replace the National Teacher Examinations.

The previous cutoff scores for the NTE allowed 90 percent of Maryland’s teacher-candidates to pass. The new benchmark on the Praxis tests, which were developed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., would screen out nearly half the teachers who take the tests each year throughout the country, state officials said.

Board members said they were optimistic that the new cutoff scores would not exacerbate a teacher shortage predicted for the state.

--Ann Bradley

Group Seeks L.A. Board Overhaul

Less than two months before a school board election in the Los Angeles school system, a group of business and civic leaders has called for an overhaul of the way the board governs the nearly 700,000-student district.

The group, the Committee on Effective School Governance, last month issued a stinging critique of the board, on which four of seven seats will be contested in the April 13 election. “The board’s culture and the district’s bureaucracy have repeatedly frustrated” badly needed reforms, contends the report, which on several measures compared the Los Angeles board unfavorably with those in Chicago and Philadelphia.

The report recommends that the panel stop overseeing day-to-day decisions--a function, it says, that should be the province of the superintendent--and instead focus on a comprehensive five-year plan with specific goals.

Victoria M. Castro, the president of the board, said the report contained “very little substance that we’re not already doing.”

--Bess Keller

ACLU Challenges Publication Law

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has filed a federal lawsuit against the Miami-Dade County district, claiming that a high school student was illegally arrested and strip-searched because of her role in the publication of a pamphlet that harshly criticized the principal and other students.

The suit, filed Feb. 19 in U.S. District Court in Miami, charges that the district violated Liliana Cuesta’s constitutional rights to a free press and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Ms. Cuesta was one of nine students at the 3,500-student Miami-Killian Senior High School suspended and arrested last February under a rarely enforced 1945 state law that prohibits individuals from anonymously publishing material that ridicules any person or religious group.

Ms. Cuesta, a senior, was the only student subjected to a strip-search after her arrest, according to Steven Wisotsky, a professor at the Nova Southeastern University law center in Fort Lauderdale who is representing Ms. Cuesta and the ACLU.

Phyllis Douglas, a lawyer for the school board, said a picture of a dart aimed at the principal’s head constituted a threat, and thus did not warrant First Amendment protection.

--Jessica L. Sandham

Sexual-Orientation Workshop Axed

School officials in Mesquite, Texas, were still searching last week for a way to train middle school counselors after canceling a workshop on handling questions from students about their sexual orientation.

The district last month called off the one-day staff-development course in response to complaints from conservative groups that opposed having gay-rights advocates among the panelists.

Katherine Cernosek, a spokeswoman for the 32,000-student district 12 miles east of Dallas, said officials did not want to subject counselors to protests and other potential problems.

Since then, Ms. Cernosek said, the district has been unable to find a state-sponsored workshop or other seminar for its counselors on the subject of homosexual students.

--Robert C. Johnson

Mayor Cancels Student Concert

Nearly 100 high school students in Streetsboro, Ohio, protested at City Hall after the mayor of the suburban town revoked a permit for a rock concert students had organized as a school fund-raiser.

Saying she was concerned about public safety, Sally Henzel, the mayor of the town of 12,000 people, said the concert had to be canceled because local police would not be able to control the crowd. Promoters expected to sell 1,500 tickets for the event.

Religious leaders in the community 30 miles from Cleveland had objected to a featured band, Mushroomhead, which is known for its raucous stage act and sexually explicit language.

District officials, who had supported the Spring Mosh ’99 that was organized by students and intended as a fund-raiser for a high school radio station, said the religious groups influenced the cancellation last month.

“This is very frustrating because students thought they had gone through the channels they needed to go through,” said Todd Puster, the treasurer of the 900- student district.

--Jessica Portner

School Sued Over Banned Books

A school board in Wisconsin agreed last week to return four books to its high school library, while awaiting the outcome of a federal lawsuit claiming the district had violated the constitutional rights of students by removing the volumes.

The books were taken off the shelves of the 560-student Barron High School library last fall in response to parents’ complaints about their homosexual content.

The Wisconsin branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sued in U.S. District Court on behalf of three juveniles and their parents and three 18-year-olds.

In agreeing not to contest a preliminary injunction, the board ordered the books in question--When Someone You Know Is Gay, The Drowning of Stephan Jones, Baby B-Bop, and Two Teenagers in Twenty--returned to the library for the time being.

Bill Theil, the lawyer representing the school, declined to comment on the case.

--Marnie Roberts


Retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, a staunch defender of the separation of church and state during his 24 years on the court, died March 4. He was 90.

Harry A. Blackmun

Justice Blackmun, who served from 1970 until 1994 and was replaced on the court by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, wrote relatively few educated-related opinions. But a notable exception was his majority opinion in a 1982 case, Washington v. Seattle School District No. 1, that struck down a Washington state ballot initiative that barred mandatory busing for desegregation.

In a concurrence to the court’s 1992 ruling in Lee v. Weisman that prohibited clergy-led prayers at school graduations, Justice Blackmun wrote, “The mixing of government and religion is a threat to free government, even if no one is forced to participate.”

--Mark Walsh

A version of this article appeared in the March 10, 1999 edition of Education Week as News in Brief: A National Roundup