News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

May 05, 2004 4 min read
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Report Finds Good News On State Budget Front

Seven states are projecting a total deficit of $720 million by the close of the current fiscal year, finds a new report that highlights the dramatic turnaround in state budgets from this time last year, when 27 states faced a cumulative deficit of $21.5 billion.

Thanks to austere spending policies and better-than-expected tax revenues, 32 states expect to end fiscal 2004 with surpluses, according to the results of a survey conducted in April and released last week by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.

Though nine states expect their surpluses to be below 1 percent of their general-fund budgets, Florida, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wyoming project surpluses larger than 5 percent of general funds.

State budgets were also buoyed by $20 billion in federal relief for Medicaid and discretionary spending.

States are not out of the woods yet. The report shows that 33 states are attempting to shave $36.3 billion in projected budget gaps for fiscal 2005, which begins July 1 in most states.

—Robert C. Johnston

Minnesota Senate Panel Rejects Yecke Nomination

Minnesota’s Senate education committee has recommended that Cheri Pierson Yecke not be confirmed as the state’s commissioner of education.

The Democrat-led committee voted 6-4 along party lines on April 27 against recommending Ms. Yecke’s confirmation. If the full Senate follows the committee’s advice, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s choice for education chief will lose her job.

The ouster of the former Bush administration appointee requires 34 votes in the full Senate: Democrats control the chamber with 35 seats.

A vote by the full Senate has not been scheduled.

Yecke, 49, has been a polarizing figure since assuming the role of the state’s top school official in February 2003. Critics view her as a partisan, while supporters insist she’s the best- qualified person to ever hold the North Star State’s top education post. (“Minn. Education Commissioner Fighting for Confirmation,” April 7, 2004.)

Gov. Pawlenty reacted angrily in a statement issued the day of the committee’s decision.

“Today’s vote had nothing to do with qualifications,” the Republican said. “It had everything to do with a Democratic Party that is void of ideas and afraid of the future.”

—Darcia Harris Bowman

New York State Senator To Open Charter School

A New York state senator has won approval to open a new charter school in New York City.

The state’s board of regents last month granted the charter to Sen. Malcolm A. Smith to start an elementary school in the Far Rockaway section of Queens in the fall. “The area where this is going has very horrible math and reading scores,” said Mr. Smith, a Democrat who represents the neighborhood in the state Senate.

The school will be operated by Victory Schools Inc., a for- profit company based in New York City that currently runs 10 public schools— two of them in the city.

The company’s schools in New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia focus on traditional methods of teaching. They use curricula such as Direct Instruction, a scripted program that emphasizes explicit, systematic phonics, and Core Knowledge, a program that outlines information that students should know at each grade level.

The school will open with K-2 classes in the fall and will add classes in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades every year. The school plans to enroll 50 students at every grade level.

—David J. Hoff

Missouri Task Force Studies High Schools

The members of a new Missouri task force established recently to study ways to strengthen the state’s public high schools are slated to hold their first meeting May 11 in Jefferson City.

State Commissioner of Education D. Kent King announced his appointments to the 23-member panel early last month. The group includes educators, vocational and higher education officials, and representatives from labor and business groups. According to Mr. King, the panel will review Missouri graduation requirements and, more generally, how high schools operate.

“The issue of reforming high schools is becoming a big issue across the nation, and there are a lot of ideas about changes that could lead to more highly qualified graduates,” he said in a statement.

—Robert C. Johnston

Teacher’s Discipline Records Can Be Released, Court Rules

A Connecticut teacher whose lesson on censorship earned him a reprimand from his school district has lost a legal bid to keep his disciplinary records from public view.

Tolland High School teacher James Wiese was disciplined four years ago, after officials in the 3,000-student Tolland, Conn., district said he had shown a film to his American government class that was “age inappropriate,” according to court documents. The film, a documentary called “Damned in the usa,” dealt with controversies around the showing of sexually explicit artwork.

When a local newspaper sought records detailing the disciplinary action, Mr. Wiese argued against their release before the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. The panel decided against him, as did a state trial court.

In an April 21 opinion that upheld those two earlier rulings, the state’s Appellate Court wrote that although a teacher’s job review may not be released under state law, disciplinary actions do not constitute such an evaluation.

A lawyer for Mr. Wiese said last week that no appeal is planned.

—Jeff Archer


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