News in Brief: A National Roundup

October 15, 1997 8 min read

Kentucky Moves To Oust Floyd Co. School Leaders

Kentucky Commissioner of Education Wilmer S. Cody said last week that he will file charges to remove Floyd County schools Superintendent Gene Davis and the district school board for alleged mismanagement. The move could culminate in a state takeover of the 8,000-student district.

The commissioner’s charges are a result of a state management audit completed last month and an independent audit that showed the school district ending the 1996-97 school year with a $320,000 deficit. The district operates with a $40 million annual budget. “This is the third year in a row that Floyd County has ended the school year with a deficit,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for Kentucky Department of Education.

Hot Issues in Education

A recent survey asked 1,000 Americans to rank the issues they considered most important to deal with in education today. The survey, commissioned by U.S. News and World Report, was conducted Sept. 12-14 by Market Facts International; it has a error margin of 3 percentage points. Following are the percentages garnered by each issue:

Making sure students have access to sports and other extracurricular activities 1.3%
Setting higher achievement standards that students must meet 12.6%
Teaching children values and discipline 26.0%
Increasing salaries for teachers 3.2%
Putting more computers in classrooms 2.4%
Improving teacher quality 11.4%
Keeping drugs away from schools 24.9%
Ensuring that schools are safe 12.0%
Reducing the number of students in each classroom 4.8%
Don’t Know 1.4%

SOURCE: U.S. News and World Report.

The audit concluded that the school district is in a state of complete disarray in how it manages its schools, from the budgeting process on down to uncertainty about how many students attend a particular school, Ms. Gross said.

Once charges are filed, an administrative hearing can be held after 30 days. The state board of education and the school district will present evidence at the hearing, conducted by the Kentucky attorney general’s office, and then the state will decide whether to take over the district.

Floyd County would be the second district that the state has assumed control of, under a statute passed in 1992. The state took over the Letcher County schools in 1994 and relinquished control this past spring. The state is allowed to take control of a school district for three years only.

Floyd County has had a history of problems, and history may be repeating itself. Last month, the Floyd school board voted 3-2 to oust Chairman Ursal Ray Wilcox because of his perceived lack of leadership, and a few weeks ago, board member Ray Brackett resigned after receiving a copy of the 1997 management audit.

In 1992, the state removed the superintendent and conducted a management audit. “The 1992 audit showed many of the same problems that were found in the 1997 audit,” Ms. Gross said.

Superintendent Davis would not comment on the situation.

Indianapolis Chief To Depart

Citing uncertainty about the Indianapolis school board’s future support for both her and her school reform efforts, Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas announced last week that she plans to step down before her contract ends.

Ms. Zendejas arrived in the state’s capital city in May 1995, with promises to bring new levels of accountability to the 44,000-student system. Her reforms have included new policies tying the fate of principals and teachers to the performance of their students, earning her ample praise and criticism. (“Accountability Is Watchword In Indianapolis,” May 22, 1996.)

Despite support from a majority of the current seven-member school board, Ms. Zendejas alluded in her resignation letter to the fact that four of the board positions are up for election in May.

“Criticism has not always been constructive, and it appears unlikely that there will be consensus about reforms essential for the long-range vitality of the system,” she wrote.

Ms. Zendejas--who came to Indianapolis from the top post in the Brownsville, Texas, district--plans to continue as superintendent until the end of this school year. Her contract was to have expired in spring 1999.

Conn. Taping Case Settled

For one Connecticut school district, a court settlement has come at a high cost.

The New Britain public schools recently agreed to pay $90,000 to settle a case with a former high school principal and a former district coordinator. The former employees sued the district in July, claiming that their free-speech and privacy rights had been violated in 1995, when their conversations were secretly taped by then-Superintendent Paul Sequeira and two school board members.

The money for the settlement must come from the district’s already-strapped budget, said Scott Macdonald, the legal counsel to the 9,500-student district. The district decided to settle the case after deciding that it would have been far more costly to pursue the lawsuit with no guarantee of winning, he added.

The plaintiffs in the case are still deciding whether to give a portion of the settlement money back to the district, said John Gesmonde, a lawyer representing the former employees.

Ex-Board Chief Guilty

Elaine Bey, a former president of the Camden, N.J., school board, has pleaded guilty to a single count of embezzlement. Ms. Bey admitted last month that she had taken almost $24,000 in school funds for personal use. According to the indictment, the money was spent on hotels, meals, car rentals, liquor, gift purchases, and adult movies.

Ms. Bey was up against an 11-count federal indictment, but as part of her plea bargain, 10 of the charges will be dropped after she is sentenced on Dec. 15. She faces up to 10 years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and restitution.

After serving as board president from 1987 to 1994, Ms. Bey remained a member until last April, when she lost a bid for re-election. The Camden district enrolls 20,000 students in southern New Jersey.

New Era Founder Sentenced

The founder of a philanthropy that defrauded private schools, colleges, charities, and evangelical groups has been sentenced to 12 years in federal prison.

U.S. District Judge Edmund V. Ludwig said Sept. 22 that John G. Bennett Jr. had engaged in reprehensible and socially destructive behavior even while “maintaining a form of innocence” stemming from his belief in a God-given calling. The 60-year-old founder and head of the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy is not eligible for parole.

New Era, based in Radnor, Pa., had promised nonprofit groups that it would double their money in six months through matching gifts from wealthy donors. Instead, the foundation shuffled money from new participants to older ones. By the time the foundation collapsed in bankruptcy in 1995, it had lost $135 million belonging to hundreds of organizations. (“Foundation Scheme Leaves Schools in Shock,” May 31, 1995.)

E. Coli Scare in Iowa

Food infected with E.coli bacteria has sickened 15 high school students in Parkersburg, Iowa, and state health officials are investigating whether school meals were the cause.

“It appears the illness was school based,” said Kevin Teale, the spokesman for the Iowa public-health department, who said three of the students had to be be hospitalized late last month for dehydration and diarrhea. “If it were a food problem at a local restaurant or a grocery store we would see cases in adults,” he said.

Because it was homecoming weekend at Aplington-Parkersburg High School the week before students fell ill, Mr. Teale said the contamination could have occured over the weekend at homecoming parties. But as a precaution last week, the high school directed food-service workers to remove certain items, such as lettuce, from the salad bar, Mr. Teale said.

A spate of tainted-food incidents across the country in recent months has jarred parents and students and tested their faith in the school food supply. (“How Safe Are School Meals, Parents Wonder,” September 24, 1997.)

Mr. Teale said that Iowa health investigators were still surveying students last week to narrow down a possible cause.

N.C. To Deliver Texts

North Carolina will continue to deliver some $50 million worth of textbooks to its schools after a proposal by a private company was rejected by the state school board this month. The state operates what it says is the only publicly owned textbook-distribution system in the country.

Although the system, run by the state education department, has suffered harsh criticism over the years for delivery problems, state officials determined that it is more cost-effective--$34.92 per book, compared with the $40.46 per book proposed by the private company.

While reviewing the proposal from the South Carolina-based R.L. Bryan Co. over the past several months, the department’s budget office surveyed school districts and found that at least 108 out of 117 wanted to stick with the existing system. They cited vast improvements in service, resulting in 99 percent of textbook orders arriving on time this year.

Bus Drivers Walk Out

More than 80 school bus drivers in Wake County, N.C., failed to show up for their afternoon runs one day late last month in protest over a wage scheme that would have paid new drivers more than most experienced ones.

The Sept. 29 walkout forced parents to find alternative transportation for their children and some of the 520 working drivers to make extra runs.

Officials of the 89,000-student district, which includes Raleigh, quickly scrapped the pay plan, which was intended to attract qualified people to fill about 35 vacancies. The plan would have paid new drivers $10 an hour, just under the current $10.35 maximum.

Also on Sept. 29 and Sept. 30, about a dozen drivers in the nearby 18,000-student Nash-Rocky Mount district skipped their runs, angry over the school system’s plan to pay drivers by the hour rather than based on a state-suggested plan.