News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Parents Sue Denver Schools To Force Academic Reforms

Denver public schools fail to teach even the most basic skills, particularly to poor and minority children, according to a class action filed in state court last week by a group of 100 parents.

The scope of the suit, which names the district and the Colorado state board as defendants, is unprecedented in the state, said the parents' lawyer, Joe B. Rogers.

Mr. Rogers, a Republican who unsuccessfully ran for Congress last year, said the suit calls for improved academic standards, better standardized-test scores, publicly accessible teacher evaluations, and more alternative and charter schools. It also asks the district to give grants to poor families who want to send their children to any private or public school.

Mark Stevens, a spokesman for the district, said that improving minority students' achievement is a top concern, noting that 230 1st grade reading tutors were hired this year. But Mr. Stevens said that the school board is opposed to vouchers that would let parents chose schools for their children.

School Founder Indicted

A federal grand jury in Washington has charged the founder of a school for emotionally troubled children with wire and bank fraud and gross mismanagement of the school that folded after eight months.

Jeffrey M. Robinson started the Kedar Day School in fall 1995 after receiving an $825,000 contract with the District of Columbia schools. He obtained the funding even though he had no prior experience in education and no college degree. He cited his own troubled past as a qualification.

The grand jury indicted Mr. Robinson on 11 counts, including allegations that he used school money to pay numerous personal expenses such as a down payment to rent a private club for his birthday celebration and the leases of four luxury cars. The indictment also accuses him of inflating the number of students enrolled in the school in bills he sent to the district.

Mr. Robinson could not be reached for comment last week.

Oakland Drops 'Ebonics'

The word "ebonics" is excluded from a new task force report on improving the performance of black children in the Oakland, Calif., schools.

Oakland school board members sparked a national debate in December by saying that ebonics, also known as black English, among other names, is a second language spoken by black students. District leaders also suggested that Oakland might seek federal bilingual education funds to teach ebonics. ("'Ebonics' Vote Puts Oakland In Maelstrom," Jan. 15, and "Oakland Board Revises 'Ebonics' Resolution," Jan. 22, 1997.)

Both ideas are absent from the report presented last week to the school board.

Instead, the task force recommends establishing a five-year, $2 million budget to improve reading and language programs, add language tests, recruit more black teachers, and hire a coordinator.

"We wanted to eliminate the focus on the word and put the focus on the children," said Sylvester Hodges, the chairman of the African-American task force.

Ky. Boots Board Members

Kentucky's state school board has fired three Russell County school board members for violating state policy on finances and spending.

The state board ruled last month that the local board members were guilty of not carrying out their duties and of approving expenditures that exceeded the district's income. At issue was a two-year budget deficit that climbed from $221,000 in 1995 to $647,739 last year out of a total budget of slightly more than $10 million.

District Superintendent Steve Towler resigned in late March rather than face the charges of mismanagement and misspending. Citing their innocence, the board members, however, chose to fight the charges.

Since the Kentucky Education Reform Act was enacted in 1990, the commissioner of education has filed charges against 22 school board members and eight superintendents in the state.

District Sues Sports League

The Utica school district in central New York has filed a lawsuit against a suburban school sports league, charging it with racial discrimination.

The suit, filed in federal court last month, seeks $5 million in compensatory damages.

D. Victor Pelligrino, the Utica board president, said that the suit was filed after the district tried for a year to be accepted for competition against the nine neighboring districts in the Tri Valley League.

Because the 8,400-student Utica schools have been barred from the league, Mr. Pelligrino said, district athletes have virtually no teams to compete against. He said he can think of "no other reason" for Utica's exclusion than its racial makeup, which is 40 percent black. Tri Valley League schools, he said, are mostly white.

But Richard Hunt, the Tri Valley League secretary, called the charge "totally unfounded." He said league rules allowing only smaller schools to participate have caused Utica's exclusion.

Ark. Teachers May Strike

Teachers in the Pulaski County school district in Arkansas have a right to strike, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit has ruled.

A three-judge panel in St. Louis ruled this month that the teachers in the Little Rock-area district can strike and that a federal judge was wrong to rely on a consent decree in a desegregation case to end a strike at the beginning of the school year. ("Tentative Agreement Ends Strike in E. St. Louis," Sept. 11, 1996.)

Teachers there are pressing the 20,300-student school system for a wage hike and compliance with state law that sets minimum salaries for teachers at $20,000. Although the district says it does not have money in its budget for the raises, it has proposed to raise salary scales to comply with state laws.

The district and the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers have until May 23 to send plans to a federal mediator. If an agreement is not reached, the union will decide whether to strike.

Antenna Bedevils School

A Roman Catholic school in Seattle, under pressure from parents to reverse a decision to install a cellular phone antenna in its belltower, faces a $1.5 million lawsuit for the turnaround.

According to school officials, an agreement between Villa Academy and Sprint Personal Communications Services last year was not approved by the board of trustees. Board President Elizabeth Mrkvicka said that parents, fearful of radio emissions from the antenna, have threatened to withdraw their children from the 480-student school.

Further, Ms. Mrkvicka said that changes to school property must also be approved by the building's owners--the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Rome.

But Sprint spokesman Tom Murphy describes the antenna contract as a "win-win situation" for both Sprint and the school, which was offered $30,000 a year to host the antenna. "People are concerned with unquantified health risks that do not exist," Mr. Murphy said.

In an April 7 letter, the Kansas City-based company gave the school 30 days to honor the terms of the contract. But as of last week, Headmaster Tom Lord said he knew of no plans to respond to the letter.

Students Face Bomb Charges

Five high school students in Las Cruces, N.M., have been charged in connection with the March firebombing of their band director's home.

The Onate High School students, ages 15 to 17, were charged with possession of explosive devices, dangerous use of explosives, conspiracy, and arson last month after a homemade bomb exploded in front of the home of Leslie Hittle. The students were all members of the school's bands.

Authorities do not know the motive for the attack.

Two of the students were expelled; the others were given one-year suspensions.

Mr. Hittle told The Associated Press that four of the teenagers have apologized for the incident. It was the second time in two months that his home was firebombed. The youths were not charged in the earlier incident. Police are unsure if the incidents are related.

Calif. Athletes Killed

A 16-year-old student at St. Bernard's Catholic High School in Playa del Rey, Calif., died last week--a day after colliding with a runner as he attempted to catch a fly ball during a baseball game.

Kriston Palomo's larynx was crushed by the brim of a runner's batting helmet after the two fell to the ground.

In a separate incident, a 17-year-old pole vaulter died from injuries he sustained when he missed the landing pad and hit his head on concrete during track practice at Hart High School in Santa Clarita, Calif. Heath Taylor, an 11th grader, died April 29.

A third student-athlete from Southern California was killed a week prior to Mr. Taylor's accident when he was struck in the head by a discus.

The Kansas City, Mo.-based National Federation of State High School Associations will review the cases to see if additional safety rules are needed.

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