State News Roundup

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A state judge has overturned a Montana law that allows teachers and other union members to withhold dues if they belong to religious groups opposed to organized labor.

The ruling came in the case of a Helena teacher who sued seeking to have the law expanded to cover church positions on abortion rights and other issues.

The teacher, Barbara Wolfe, refused to pay dues to the Helena Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, because of the national union's support for abortion rights and birth control.

Ms. Wolfe, a Roman Catholic, said her church's teaching against abortion and birth control meant that she could not in good conscience contribute to the union.

She asked a state judge to rule that the labor law covered her refusal.

However, Judge Dorothy McCarter held that the state law favored members of organized religions over those with personal religious beliefs because its language applied only to members of "a bona-fide religious sect.''

"By granting a benefit to members of organized religion that is denied to persons with personal religious beliefs, the statute grants a denominational preference and thereby violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment,'' the judge wrote. She also refused Ms. Wolfe's request to extend the law to personal religious beliefs.

In the wake of a local school district's violation of state law, the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota High School League will establish a task force to determine if and how districts are complying with the law that requires them to provide equal athletic opportunities to boys and girls.

The education department this month ruled that the Rosemont-Apple Valley-Eagan District 196 had offered more sporting activities for boys and spent more money on them.

The action stemmed from complaints by parents that schools in five districts offered ice hockey, but failed to offer ringette, a comparable winter sport for girls.

While four of the districts added ringette to their roster of activities, Rosemont did not, according to James Sauter, deputy state commissioner of education. Since then, Mr. Sauter said, Rosemont has set aside $50,000 to comply with the state's ruling.

After surveying the districts, the task force will address ways to rectify inequalities and, if necessary, ask the state school board to clarify regulations that may be vague, Mr. Sauter said.

The New York Department of Education has announced a $1-million settlement of a dispute with the largest non-degree-granting proprietary school in the state over its admissions standards and educational programs.

State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol said last week that SCS Business and Technical Institute, which serves some 4,000 students at five New York City locations, had agreed to pay the fine into the Statewide Tuition Reimbursement Fund. The fund provides refunds to students who never complete their training at proprietary schools because of serious violations of laws and rules governing those schools.

The settlement also requires the firm to pay for consultants chosen by the department to ensure that the institute will comply with regulations. The department will also provide training for institute staffmembers, approve all advertising by the firm, schedule regular meetings to ensure compliance, and mandate increased reporting requirements, state officials said.

The settlement follows an investigation of the institute for alleged recruitment and admissions violations.

A federal grand jury in Grand Rapids, Mich., is investigating whether some state education-department staff members misspent federal grants on overseas travel, department officials said last week.

Robert G. Harris, a spokesman for the department, said last week that the grand jury had subpoenaed several of the agency's staff members to testify about the use of federal grants awarded under the Education for Economic Security Act to fund foreign travel.

Last fall, the state agency was ordered to pay back $202,000 in federal grant money earmarked for higher-education institutions after auditors learned that the money was used to pay for trips by several state lawmakers and school-board members to Europe and Japan.

The agency has appealed the ruling, asserting that it has been caught up in a dispute over federal spending guidelines.

Vol. 11, Issue 26

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