News in Brief: A National Roundup

March 26, 2003 7 min read
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U.S. Air Force, District Team Up to Open School

A first-of-its- kind military high school is set to open in August, the product of a partnership between the U.S. Air Force and the Gilbert, Ariz., school district.

The GPS Technology and Leadership Academy promises “a rigorous curriculum focused on preparing students for careers in science and technology,” according to the district.

While the Air Force has education partnerships with other school systems, the magnet school in Gilbert will be the first free- standing public school of its kind. It opens this year for grades 9 and 10, and will add the 11th and 12th grades over the following two years.

Academy students will receive Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instruction, but will not be obligated to any military service after attending the academy.

The experience the new school promises won’t suit all students. To apply, teenagers must have at least a 2.0 grade point average, a clean discipline record, and two letters of recommendation. They must also sign off on the academy’s strict dress code.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Baltimore Schools Fined by City Over Lead in Drinking Fountains

Baltimore’s health commissioner has fined 36 public schools in the city $100 each for failing to comply with an order to shut off their drinking fountains.

The schools were told by the health department late last month to turn off the fountains because their water was found to be contaminated by lead.

Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the 95,000-student Baltimore district, said school board members had ordered the district’s facilities chief to comply with the order, put up warning signs at all tap outlets, and install bottled-water machines in all of the affected schools until their water could be retested.

But school administrators were unable to comply in time to meet Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson’s March 7 deadline because of a late February snowstorm that shut the city’s schools for nearly a week, Ms. Pyatt said.

All of the schools found to be in violation are now working to comply, she said. In addition, Pradeep Dixit, the director of facilities, was “forced to resign,” she said.

—Marianne D. Hurst

Sacramento Board Votes On Charter Plans for School

After months of dissension over the fate of a failing high school in Sacramento, Calif., the city school district’s board of trustees voted 4-2 on March 18 to allow Sacramento High School to be run as a charter.

Several groups, including the local teachers’ union, submitted charter plans. The board approved the plan from St. Hope Corp., a nonprofit group in Sacramento founded by Kevin Johnson, a 1983 Sacramento High graduate and former professional basketball player. (“Ex-NBA Star’s Charter Plan Splits Sacramento,” March 12, 2003.)

The Sacramento City Teachers Association, which argued that St. Hope had dodged state rules for converting regular public schools to charter status, said it would appeal the decision to the Sacramento County board of education.

At the same meeting, the district board unanimously approved another charter petition from Sacramento High’s visual and performing arts magnet program. While St. Hope has been given use of the Sacramento High campus, the board said teachers from the magnet program should also be included in the charter planning.

But supporters of the arts program say they plan to ask the district to allow them to house their charter at a separate location.

—John Gehring

U.S. Judge Rules Against School In Case Involving Religious Notes

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction last week barring Westfield High School in Massachusetts from disciplining six students who had distributed candy canes bearing religious messages at the school.

The students, all members of the school’s Life and Insight For Eternity, or LIFE, Bible Club, were denied permission by their principal and the district superintendent to distribute the candy canes last December. Members of the club handed out about 450 pieces of candy, however, and were told in January that they would have to serve one-day, in-school suspensions for insubordination.

Their parents appealed the decision to the superintendent’s office and filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the school had violated their children’s right to free speech. The lawsuit was handled by lawyers affiliated with the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando, Fla.-based legal-advocacy organization.

In his March 17 ruling, U.S. District Judge Frank Freedman in Springfield granted the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, saying the school had violated the students’ right to free speech.

Thomas Y. McDowell, the superintendent of the 6,600-student district, could not be reached for comment last week.

—Ann Bradley

Baltimore Schools Chief To Leave Position in June

Carmen V. Russo, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore public schools, announced last week she would leave her post at the end of the school year to work for a national not-for-profit education foundation.

Ms. Russo, who has run the 95,000-student district since July 2000, did not name her new employer. She was a finalist late last year to head Florida’s K-12 school system, but withdrew from consideration.

In Baltimore, she formed a special district of the 10 lowest-performing schools and put in place an improvement plan for them to use. Under her leadership, a number of philanthropies committed $20.75 million to transform nine large city high schools into smaller learning communities and create several more innovative secondary schools.

—Ann Bradley

L.A. Schools Chief Wants New School on Belmont Site

Roy Romer, the superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, hasn’t given up on using the troubled Belmont Learning Center site.

Mr. Romer last week presented the school board with three options for using the 34-acre site, where the district has spent at least $154 million to build a school that is now 60 percent complete.

In 2000, the project was halted because of environmental concerns about the site, a former oil field in downtown Los Angeles. Late last year, construction was called off again, when a seismic fault zone was discovered on the property and scientists couldn’t determine conclusively whether it was safe.

In selecting from three options for the site, Mr. Romer chose a plan that would construct a 1,500-seat school on a portion of the site outside the quake zone. It also calls for buying land for another 1,100-seat school nearby. The schools would cost $61 million and $89 million, respectively.

After gathering public reaction to his proposal, the superintendent will recommend a plan to the board next month.

Jose Huizar, the school board member who represents the Belmont community, said in a statement that he was “cautiously optimistic” about Mr. Romer’s recommendation.

—Ann Bradley

Judge Rejects Challenge to Law Changing Camden, N.J., Board

A judge has rejected a constitutional challenge to a financial-bailout law that will give the governor of New Jersey control over Camden’s schools.

The March 18 ruling by Mercer County Superior Court Judge Andrew J. Smithson turned back arguments in several lawsuits against the legislation, signed by Gov. James E. McGreevey in December. Key among those claims was that the law amounts to “special legislation” aimed at one city.

The law is designed to revive Camden with a $175 million infusion, but it also gives the governor authority over many aspects of city government.

It would permit Gov. McGreevey, a Democrat, to veto actions of the school board of the 19,000- student district. The law also would convert the elected board of seven into a panel of nine, with three members elected and three each appointed by the mayor and the governor.

Last September, in response to a lawsuit by school board members, Judge Smithson held that the new law illegally targeted only one city. State lawmakers rewrote it to make it more generally applicable.

Opponents of the law in Camden contend the rewritten law still amounts to special legislation because virtually no other cities would qualify. But Judge Smithson decided last week that the law was constitutionally sound.

—Catherine Gewertz

N.J. District Resumes Class After Propane Fire in Area

Students in the 1,700-student Newton, N.J., school district returned to school on March 20 after a massive propane fire kept them home for three days last week.

Hundreds of Newton residents and students within a 1-mile radius of the fire were evacuated. The fire was only about a half-mile from the town’s elementary school, said Newton Superintendent Bob Gratz. The school, with help from staff members, served as an emergency Red Cross shelter, he added.

The fire began on March 14, when the hose of a 3,000-gallon propane truck that was being refueled apparently dislodged and sprayed propane across the ground.

The gas entered a building and ignited, causing an explosion that blew out the windows and damaged 67 homes, according to local authorities. Sixteen people suffered minor injuries. The fire burned for six days and caused more than $7.1 million in property damage.

—Rhea R. Borja


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