News in Brief: A National Roundup

February 19, 2003 6 min read
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Policy Debates Shortchange Rural Schools, Report Says

Rural schools need greater attention from policymakers and the public, a report released last week by a leading rural education group says.

Read “Why Rural Matters 2003: The Continuing Need for Every State to Take Action on Rural Education,” from the Rural Trust. A report summary is also available. (Require Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The Rural School and Community Trust’s semiannual “Why Rural Matters” report, released Feb. 12, says state leaders should consider the distinctive factors that affect rural schools and adopt and amend policies to help them improve.

Nearly one in three children lives in rural America, “but if you listen to the education policy debate, particularly around the impacts of the new ‘No Child Left Behind’ law, chances are you will still not hear much about rural schools,” said Marty Strange, the policy director for the Washington-based organization.

“In most of the 50 states, they are left behind from the start,” he said.

The report lists 13 states it says have the most pressing need for attention to their rural schools: Alabama, Arkansas, the Carolinas, the Dakotas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

—Alan Richard

Rising Cost of State Colleges Cause for Concern, Report Says

“College Affordability in Jeopardy,” Winter 2003, is available from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.

Tuition and fees at public, four-year universities rose 10 percent over the past year, according to a report, at the same time that state support for those schools increased by the smallest amount in a decade.

“College Affordability in Jeopardy,” released on Feb. 11 by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, says that tuition and fees at four-year public institutions rose in every state from 2001-02 to 2002-03.

Average four-year tuition and fees nationwide rose from $3,379 to $3,718, according to the center, a research and policy organization located in San Jose, Calif. Average community college tuition and fees rose from $1,808 to $1,957 over that period, an 8 percent climb, increasing in every state except California and Maine.

As prices have climbed, state support for higher education, measured in current dollars, rose only 1.2 percent over the past year, the smallest increase in a decade and down from a 3.5 percent rise a year ago, the report found. Appropriations amounts fell in 14 states.

—Sean Cavanagh

Embattled Md. District Leader Plans to Leave Job in June

Iris T. Metts, the schools chief in Prince George’s County, Md., has said she plans to leave her post in June, ending a stormy tenure during which state lawmakers stepped in to replace her school board.

The former Delaware state secretary of education came to the county in 1999, hoping to instill confidence in a district whose student performance lagged near the bottom in the state. With 132,000 students, the district serves a large middle-class black community just outside Washington.

But relations between Ms. Metts and the school board deteriorated amid charges that the board was micromanaging the district and that she had failed to deliver substantially higher student performance. The board fired Ms. Metts last spring, but state policymakers quickly disbanded the panel and appointed a new one, which then rehired her. (“Prince George’s County School Board to Be Replaced Under New Md. Law,” April 17, 2002.)

Ms. Metts now says she won’t seek another contract when her current one expires at the end of this school year. Although she said she has a new job lined up with a private firm that does work in education, she has not given details of the new position.

—Jeff Archer

Calif. District Halts Busing Following Safety Problems

A rural California district has parked all of its school buses because of the fleet’s unsatisfactory safety inspections, and the local prosecutor has sued to force the district to improve and restore bus service.

Since January, parents of students in the 4,700-student Amador County Unified School District have been forced to transport their children to and from school, which in some cases means driving many miles and enduring traffic jams near the school. The rural district is southeast of Sacramento.

District Attorney Todd Reibe last week filed a “public-nuisance abatement” lawsuit, which is brought when the general public is inconvenienced or its safety is deemed at stake. The district’s fleet of more than 30 buses has failed numerous safety inspections by the California Highway Patrol, Mr. Reibe noted.

The lawsuit was filed after a CHP report showed chronic and unaddressed safety problems, Mr. Reibe said. For instance, one bus had a fuel leak, and one had a rear axle fall off while transporting students.

The school district is making repairs and upgrading maintenance records, and hopes to have the fleet back on the roads by Feb. 24, after the chp makes further inspections this week.

—Joetta L. Sack

Janitor Charged With Assault Of Massachusetts Superintendent

A school janitor in Somerville, Mass., has been charged with assaulting the district’s superintendent.

Albert F. Argenziano, the superintendent of the 5,800-student Somerville district, was punched repeatedly and struck with an unknown object on Feb. 6, according to a court document. Local police later that day charged Francis M. O’Brien, a janitor for the school district, with three crimes, including assault and battery and armed assault with intent to murder.

Mr. Argenziano told police that shortly after he arrived at the school district offices at 5:30 a.m., Mr. O’Brien entered his office and began swearing at him before striking him in the face several times. Mr. Argenziano eventually was able to grab the employee’s arms and stop him, police said.

The superintendent, who suffered multiple injuries, has returned to work, though on a limited basis, said Steven Jenkins, the district’s administrator for student services.

Mr. Jenkins said the janitor’s motives for the alleged assault were unclear. The employee has been disciplined, and is not currently working, he said. Mr. O’Brien plead not guilty at a court appearance last week. He could not be reached for comment.

—Sean Cavanagh

Superintendent in Texas Charged With Breaking Records Law

A Texas superintendent faces two misdemeanor criminal charges of violating the state’s open-records law for allegedly withholding information about school district expenses from a newspaper reporter and a county commissioner.

Jack Patton, the superintendent of the 1,900-student Llano district near Austin, surrendered to authorities on Feb. 10 and posted a $1,000 bond. If convicted, he faces up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine on each count.

The Texas attorney general’s office began an investigation after a local newspaper, the Llano Buzz and County Journal, published stories last fall questioning credit card expenses by board members and administrators at a time when the district was cutting spending on extracurricular activities and rationing ketchup packets in its school cafeterias.

Tom Alberts, the editor of the newspaper, asked to examine details of the credit card receipts and was allegedly told by the superintendent that they did not exist. The receipts surfaced later and showed such charges as a $617 steak dinner for three board members, their spouses, and Mr. Patton while they were attending a school boards’ conference in Dallas. The district has since been reimbursed for that charge.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said in a statement that the allegations that Mr. Patton withheld access to the receipts “make a mockery of our open government laws.”

Neal Adams, Mr. Patton’s lawyer, said: “When all the evidence is in, we believe he will be exonerated.”

—Mark Walsh


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