News in Brief: A National Roundup

September 04, 2002 7 min read
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Arkansas Parents Call Off Boycott Over Elections

A boycott of classes sparked by complaints that an Arkansas school board’s election system is biased against blacks ended last week.

For a week, most parents of students in the 1,750-student Lee County district in the Mississippi Delta region of Marianna kept their children home. They were protesting the school board’s refusal to hold elections for all seven board members after new electoral districts were redrawn following the 2000 U.S. Census.

The boycott began on Aug. 19, the first day of school, after religious leaders in the community encouraged parents to keep their children home despite calls by Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican, to let the court system handle the dispute.

Protesters claimed that state law requires all school districts with a 10 percent or greater population of minorities to redraw voting lines and hold elections for all board seats after every Census. While the school board redrew those boundaries after the 2000 Census, it said that only two seats already up for election on Sept. 17 should be contested.

While Lee County is 57 percent African-American, black students make up 90 percent of the district’s enrollment. Five of the seven board members are white. Four residents have sued the school board and district officials, contending the election system is biased against blacks.

—John Gehring

Federal Judge Orders Switch In Mich. Girls’ Sports Seasons

A federal judge has ordered the Michigan High School Athletic Association to switch the seasons girls play basketball and volleyball in the state.

The association had submitted a plan to comply with last year’s ruling by the U.S. District Court in Kalamazoo, which found the MHSAA had discriminated against girls by scheduling some of their athletic seasons during nontraditional times of the year. (“Mich. Eyes New Sports Schedules to Help Girls,” June 5, 2002.)

Michigan, for example, is one of the few states where girls play basketball in the fall and volleyball in the winter.

U.S. District Judge Richard Alan Enslen, in an Aug. 1 ruling, rejected the organization’s compliance plan that would have moved some girls’ competition, such as golf, to more traditional seasons, but kept the two most popular girls’ sports—basketball and volleyball— unchanged.

The judge directed the association to switch girls’ volleyball and basketball seasons in Michigan so that volleyball would be played in the fall and basketball games would be held in the winter. The judge also gave the MHSAA until Oct. 30 to choose from among three options in realigning other sports seasons.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, based in Cincinnati, has agreed to hear the association’s appeal of the judge’s decision. No scheduling changes will take place until after the appellate court rules.

— John Gehring

Georgia District Floats Policy On Teaching Origins of Life

A suburban Atlanta school district is considering a new policy that would require its teachers to give a “balanced” treatment of theories about the origin of life.

The Cobb County school board is scheduled to vote Sept. 26 on a policy that would instruct the 96,000-student district’s teachers to inform students about “disputed views” on the origin of life. The policy doesn’t specifically mention the theory of evolution, creationism, or intelligent-design theory, which suggests that an intervening force aided in the evolution of humans.

“The [school] board wants to ensure that the science curriculum of the district exposes students to a variety of testable theories and scenarios regarding the origin of the species,” the school board said in an Aug. 22 statement describing the proposed policy.

Scientific experts generally accept the theory of evolution as the best explanation for human development. But a small minority of scientists are promoting the intelligent-design theory and are forcing debates as states revise their science standards and as districts review their curricula.

—David J. Hoff

N.J. Judge Blocks Takeover Of Camden School Board

A New Jersey judge has struck down a portion of a new state law that would have given Gov. James E. McGreevey control of the beleaguered Camden school board.

In a ruling issued from the bench Aug. 5, Mercer County Superior Court Judge Andrew J. Smithson said the new measure violates a state constitutional ban on “special legislation” targeting a specific school or district.

Judge Smithson’s ruling struck down only the portion of the law that would have affected governance of the 19,000-student Camden school system. The rest, a $175 million aid package designed to revitalize New Jersey’s poorest city, remains in effect.

The invalidated portion of the law would have gradually replaced the nine-member elected school board with three elected members, three chosen by the mayor, and three chosen by the governor. It also would have given the governor, a Democrat, veto power over board decisions.

As of last week, the attorney general’s office had not decided whether to appeal the decision.

—Catherine Gewertz

Inkster, Mich., School System Gets State Financial Oversight

Gov. John Engler of Michigan has appointed a veteran administrator to oversee the finances of the Inkster school district, following a lengthy standoff between the 1,500-student system and Edison Schools Inc., which runs Inkster’s schools under contract.

The appointment of W. Howard Morris, who served as the chief financial officer of the Detroit schools from 1999 to 2001, runs through Aug. 8 of next year.

Earlier this year, Gov. Engler appointed a five-member panel to investigate the district’s finances, which included $1.2 million in outstanding management fees that the district had refused to pay Edison. The New York City-based school management company was hired by Inkster in 2000 as part of a bid by the debt-ridden district to avoid a state takeover.

Following the review, Michigan Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Watkins declared the district in a financial emergency and recommended hiring a financial manager.

Robert C. Johnston

Santana High Gunman Sentenced to Prison

The teenager who pleaded guilty to killing two students and wounding 13 other people at Santana High School in Santee, Calif., last year has been sentenced to 50 years to life in prison.

Charles “Andy” Williams, 16, will be held at a youth detention center until he turns 18. He will be eligible for parole in 2051, when he is 65.

In June, he pleaded guilty to two counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder in connection with the March 5, 2001, shootings at the high school outside San Diego.

—Ann Bradley

Former School Worker Sentenced in Thefts

A former Illinois school board employee has been sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of theft by deception and misconduct.

From 1987 to 2001, Ben Toczyl, 59, served as the township school treasurer for Calumet Park District 132 and Patton District 133, two of the state’s poorest school districts, located in Calumet Township near Chicago.

According to the Cook County prosecutor’s office, Mr. Toczyl embezzled $390,437 from the two districts between 1998 and May 2000, when he was fired.

As part of his plea deal, 21 other charges were dropped, and Mr. Toczyl does not have to repay the stolen money. But District 133, in a bid to reclaim the money, has filed a civil lawsuit against him and two trustees directly responsible for overseeing his actions.

—Michelle Galley

District Chief in Kan. to Quit After Flap Over Plagiarism

The Piper, Kan., school district, which made national headlines with a controversy over student plagiarism during the 2001-02 school year, opened classes Aug. 19 under new management.

Superintendent Michael O. Rooney, who was criticized for not supporting a Piper High School teacher’s handling of plagiarism involving 28 students, is taking a leave of absence through next June 30, when his resignation will take effect, according to Associate Superintendent John W. Chapman, who is currently in charge.

No reason has been given publicly for Mr. Rooney’s departure. The Piper school board will consider the appointment of an interim leader for the 1,300-student district on Sept. 10.

In another change, Michael Adams, the principal at Piper High last year, has been succeeded by Robert Runnebaum. Mr. Adams did not seek renewal of his contract last spring, hinting that the plagiarism incident was the cause.

The school board last month adopted a new plagiarism policy, and officials have developed “age-appropriate” handbooks on plagiarism for students in grades 3-12.

—Andrew Trotter

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