News in Brief: A National Roundup

November 29, 2000 6 min read

Gas Explosion Kills 2, Destroys
S.D. School

A gas explosion and fire at a Plankinton, S.D., school this month resulted in the deaths of two school employees and serious injuries to a volunteer firefighter. The Nov. 17 blast, apparently caused by an accidental propane leak, destroyed the original building and heavily damaged a newer addition of the K-12 Plankinton Public School.

Killed were Dave Grode, the Plankinton district’s chief executive officer, and Patrick Phillips, the school’s custodian. The school board of the far-flung, 190-student district, which includes the town of Plankinton, about 90 miles west of Sioux Falls, cancelled classes until this week.

School was scheduled to resume Nov. 29 in several local churches and in buildings at the South Dakota State Training Facility, a juvenile prison, in Plankinton.

The blast occurred about 7:20 p.m. on a Friday, about two hours after school employees smelled gas and evacuated student wrestlers from the gymnasium. The superintendent and the custodian were investigating the problem when the explosion occurred.

Mr. Phillips, 36, died at a Sioux Falls hospital, and Mr. Grode, 43, died after several hours of being trapped in the debris of the building.

John Harless, the firefighter and local businessman who was injured responding to the explosion, remained hospitalized last week. The exact cause of the explosion was still being investigated.

—Bess Keller

Pittsburgh Chief Proposes Cuts

Pittsburgh’s superintendent of schools has proposed closing 15 schools, laying off 160 employees, and raising taxes by 23 percent to cover a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

Superintendent John W. Thompson, who came to Pittsburgh in May after six years as the schools chief in Tulsa, Okla., said the 39,000-student district can’t afford to keep its smallest schools open. Some of them serve fewer than 225 students.

Mr. Thompson told school board members Nov. 13 that the district must cover an estimated $36.5 million shortfall in its $442.8 million budget for the coming year. The proposed tax increase would raise most of the money, and the job cuts—including 80 teacher positions—would make up the rest of the money, the superintendent said.

Public hearings will be held to discuss the plan.

—Alan Richard

Elders To Work Off Taxes

Scores of senior citizens are signing up to participate in a program that gives them a break on their property taxes in exchange for working in their Colorado school district.

As of last week, 112 property owners age 60 or older had signed up for the “tax work-off” program in the Poudre school district in Fort Collins, about 60 miles north of Denver.

“We hadn’t projected this kind of interest,” said Todd Gamble, the director of personnel for the 24,000-student district. “We will make some budget adjustments to make sure we can accommodate everyone who’s interested.”

Participants in the program, which begins Jan. 1, will earn a $6 credit for every hour they work in local schools or administrative offices, up to a maximum of $480, Mr. Gamble said. The district will then write checks for the amounts they earned to the county assessor’s office to offset their property-tax bills.

The program was offered in the late 1980s but was discontinued in 1991 for lack of participation, Mr. Gamble said. It was resurrected this year when district officials, receiving feedback from the community, became concerned that so many older residents needed help easing their tax burdens, he said.

—Catherine Gewertz

Noted Coach Faces Sex Charges

The coach of a California state-championship boys’ basketball team faces two felony charges for allegedly sexually molesting one of his players.

Russell Otis, who led the basketball team at Dominguez High School in Compton to four state championships, including one this year, was charged earlier this month with oral copulation and sodomy by use of force. The charges stemmed from an alleged October encounter with a 17-year-old senior in the coach’s Carson home.

Mr. Otis, 38, who is also a health teacher and has coached the Dominguez team since 1987, is on unpaid leave.

Even if he is cleared of the charges, Mr. Otis may not be able to return to the classroom, because his teaching credentials have expired, district spokesman Fausto Capobianco said. Mr. Otis has been working with an emergency teaching credential for much of his 13-year career at Dominguez High.

The coach’s lawyer, Leonard Levine, could not be reached for comment last week.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Denver Settles Suit Over Fight

A civil rights lawsuit over the actions of Denver police responding to a 1996 fight at a high school dance has been settled.

The city and county of Denver agreed to pay compensation and put in place new law-enforcement policies and diversity-training programs for officers as part of the agreement, announced Nov. 15.

The class action, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado in May 1996, alleged that some of the roughly 70 police officers who responded to reports of a fistfight during a dance at Thomas Jefferson High School were physically abusive and used racial slurs while trying to control a crowd of mostly black students and their chaperones.

In addition to providing monetary compensation for the victims, including two parents and five students, the agreement commits the police department to implementation of several policy initiatives “that will help reduce the likelihood that the unfortunate events at [Jefferson High] will not be repeated,” said lawyer Bruce Jones, who worked on the lawsuit with the ACLU.

The Denver police department did not return a call for comment.

— Darcia Harris Bowman

N.Y.C. Teacher Wins Lottery

A New York City kindergarten teacher who won half of a $130 million jackpot in the New York state lottery delayed claiming her prize in favor of preparing for parent-teacher conferences.

Eugenia Sitaras, known as Eve, stepped forward Nov. 17 to accept a lump-sum payout of $31,016,588.

She split the “Millennium Millions” jackpot with a Pennsylvania man who claimed his half when the winning numbers were announced in early November. It was the largest lottery prize in state history.

The sum Ms. Sitaras received is based on how much lottery officials would have to invest to generate $65 million over 25 years, according to Maxine Ballard, a spokeswoman for the lottery. After taxes, the teacher is expected to net slightly more than $19 million.

Ms. Sitaras, 26, who teaches gifted children at a school she would not name in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, has said she does not plan to quit her job.

—Ann Bradley

W.Va. Parent Fights Text

Textbooks continue to generate controversy in Kanawha County, W. Va., where in 1974 the district was embroiled in one of the fiercest textbook disputes in the nation’s history.

A parent has filed a complaint with the 30,000-student district over science textbooks that include references to evolution. She maintains that the material violates a state law requiring that textbooks contain accurate information. (“Book Binds,” Commentary, Jan. 12, 2000.)

The parent, Patty Pulliam, complained that the books present evolution as fact instead of theory. Her complaint will be reviewed by district administrators before being taken up by the local board.

A measure to allow teachers to present perceived flaws in evolutionary theory was rejected by the district board last year.

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo

Teacher Charged in Threats

An English teacher at Silverado High School in Las Vegas was arrested this month for allegedly writing a series of self-reported bomb threats and pulling a fire alarm at the 3,300-student school.

Prosecutors have charged Dylena Pierce, 31, with two felony counts of making bomb threats, as well as misdemeanor charges related to the fire alarm. In October, the teacher showed school officials several different letters containing bomb threats, resulting in an evacuation of the school building in at least one instance. She later reportedly told law-enforcement agents that she had written the notes herself.

Edward Goldman, an assistant superintendent for staff relations in the Clark County, Nev., school district, said Ms. Pierce was not currently at the high school, but he would not comment on the specifics of her employment status. Ms. Pierce could not be reached for comment.

—Jessica L. Sandham

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 2000 edition of Education Week as News in Brief: A National Roundup