Districts News Roundup

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Lawyers for black families in Prince George's County, Md., told a federal district judge last week that local school officials have failed to live up to a pledge in a court-approved desegregation plan to reduce class sizes in 14 predominantly black schools.

In papers filed in federal district court in Baltimore, the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People charged that, in some cases, pupil-teacher ratios at the schools exceed 27 to 1, compared with the 20-to-1 ratio that county school officials agreed to in the 1985 desegregation plan.

Under the plan, the suburban Washington school district was permitted to achieve integration through the use of 29 magnet schools and was required to lower class sizes and to provide compensatory services to students in the predominantly black schools.

Richard Steve Brown, executive secretary of the county branch of the N.A.A.C.P., said the disagreement centers on the method used by Prince George's officials for computing pupil-teacher ratios at the largely black schools. He charged that the officials have violated the court-approved plan by including five or six "special teachers''--those who do not have their own classrooms but assist regular teachers--in their count for each of the schools.

Mr. Brown said the black parents also asked the court to bar school officials from opening "talented and gifted'' magnet programs at two of the predominantly black schools next fall. The parents, he explained, believe such programs, now offered at six schools, disproportionately benefit white students.

The Poughkeepsie, N.Y., school district has filed suit in federal district court to prevent state education officials from withholding more than $2 million in aid that local officials say they are due under a special program for small-city school districts.

Without the money, local school officials say, the district will be forced to end the school year on May 20, more than one month before schools were scheduled to close for the summer.

The case centers on a dispute between Poughkeepsie and New York State officials over a provision of the law establishing the aid program. That provision requires districts to raise their property-tax rates to qualify for the aid.

The Poughkeepsie officials argue that they set their new tax rate in accordance with the formula outlined in the law, but have been denied full funding because the state commissioner of education and the board of regents adopted a different formula in the regulations governing the program.

The local officials say the district is entitled to roughly $8.6 million under the program, and that they prepared the system's 1986-87 budget accordingly. But state officials assert that the district is entitled to only $6.3 million.

In the lawsuit, which was filed on May 4, district officials and several parents of children who attend the Poughkeepsie schools argue that, because they were not given an opportunity to argue their case in administrative hearings before the state commissioner reduced their aid, they were denied due process of law in violation of the Fifth and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

They also contend that the funding cutoff violated their 14th Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

The lawsuit asks the court to issue preliminary and permanent injunctions requiring the state to pay the district the entire amount the district claims it is owed.

State education officials declined to comment on the suit.

A West Virginia state hearing examiner has ruled that a teacher who contested his principal's order to grade students less harshly must comply with the demand.

Larry Brown, an 8th-grade science teacher at the Blennerhassett Junior High School in Parkersburg, W. Va., filed a grievance with the state hearing board after being told that he could not give D's and F's to more than 25 percent of his students during a grading period.

The hearing examiner ordered the principal to work with Mr. Brown to devise a new grading system for his science class.

Mr. Brown had acknowledged that, at one point in the year, he had given D's and F's to more than half of his students. He said that, while he would comply with the hearing examiner's ruling, he disagreed with the practice of lowering course requirements.

In his grievance, Mr. Brown argued that the low grades were not the result of a difficult curriculum, but of students' failure to do the assigned work and parents' failure to ensure that assignments were completed.

According to Les Smith, a school spokesman, the principal's order came partly in response to criticism from students, parents, and other teachers at the school.

"The grades Mr. Brown gave were consistently low and inconsistent with grades [the students] were earning in other classes,'' Mr. Smith said.

William Staats, superintendent of the Wood County school district, said the school was not lowering its standards. He said teachers should adjust their teaching methods to meet the needs of their students.

Mr. Brown said, however, that he had already "gone through a wide array of [teaching] options and reporting methods.''

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, a school board in western Michigan has voted to scrap a new policy that would have required high-school graduates next month to wear different colored robes on the basis of their sex.

According to Paul J. Dennenfeld, a lawyer for the Kalamazoo branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, the dispute began earlier this year when school officials in Parchment asked students at the town's high school to decide what color gowns graduating seniors should wear.

In previous years, the lawyer noted, honors graduates wore white, and all other seniors wore maroon. As a result of the student vote, officials decided that, beginning this year, all male graduates would wear maroon, and all female graduates would wear white.

A female student filed a complaint with local officials, charging that the gender-based distinction violated the federal law barring sex bias in education. After her complaint was dismissed, she got in touch with the A.C.L.U., which sent a letter to the school board indicating that it would file suit on the student's behalf if the policy were not changed.

According to Mr. Dennenfeld, after receiving the letter, the Parchment board voted late last month to give all graduates the option of deciding which color robe to wear during the June 6 ceremonies. "We're very pleased that they fashioned a remedy without our having to take action,'' the lawyer said.

A new report by the Massachusetts Department of Education criticizes the administration of technical and vocational programs in Boston and recommends that they remain under the jurisdiction of a federal judge.

The report criticizes both the past performance and future plans for Boston's career-training programs. It concludes that the programs have not been improved, as required under the district's court-ordered desegregation plan, and that the district has "apparently chosen not to take the court order seriously.''

The vocational and technical programs operated by the Boston schools have experienced declining enrollments and "severe'' dropout rates, the report states, attributing the statistics to "irrelevant'' courses and materials and inadequate counseling.

The report also criticizes the district's plans to merge three high schools next fall, saying that the plan could exclude some students interested in pursuing vocational courses. It added that the new school's proposed administrator lacks the necessary experience and credentials.

School officials are studying the report and have not yet released a response to it, according to a district spokesman.

Reacting to a junior-high-school skit in Omaha that included negative stereotypes of Hispanics, the Nebraska legislature has voted to reprimand local and state education officials.

Senator Ernie Chambers, who sponsored the resolution, said the controversy centered on the production last month by the Monroe Junior High School's Spanish club of "Lifestyles of the Poor and Hungry,'' a parody of the popular television show, "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.''

The skit told the story of a Mexican family in which the mother, portrayed as a thief, spends rent money for basketball shoes, he said.

"It was supposed to be funny,'' Mr. Chambers said. "But it wasn't funny at all. It was degrading and demeaning.''

In addition to criticizing the skit, the resolution calls on the Omaha school board and superintendent, the county superintendent, and the state board of education to investigate the incident and take "corrective'' action against the club's adviser and the principal.

A spokesman for the Omaha school district said the skit was performed twice as part of a schoolwide fund-raising show. The spokesman said the superintendent was investigating the matter.

Vol. 06, Issue 34

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