News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Minn. Plans School Audit

Minnesotas chief auditor plans to examine the spending practices of hundreds of school districts to determine how they have used more than half a billion dollars in state aid over the past six years.

Republican Gov. Arne Carlson formally asked state Auditor Judy Dutcher on May 1 to conduct a "thorough review" of how Minneapolis and other districts account for their use of state compensatory-aid funds aimed at helping students who achieve below their grade levels.

Minneapolis school officials were surprised by the move because they had worked closely with the state in recent weeks to solve technical accounting problems linked to state coding requirements for the compensatory money, said Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the 47,000-student district.

A change in the way the state requires districts to account for and code their spending created the appearance of a gap between the amount the district has received in compensatory aid and the amount it has accounted for, the spokeswoman said. "We know where every penny is," Ms. Pattock said. "We have solved the problem. There is no substance to [the governor's] request."

Network Up in Maryland

Maryland will be the first state to take up a private-sector offer to create Internet sites for all of its school districts.

The Family Education Network and AT&T will create pages on the World Wide Web for schools in each of the state's 24 districts. The Boston-based multimedia publisher and the telecommunications giant will provide the service for free, the companies said in an announcement last week.

Once the sites are up and running, parents may check them for PTA schedules, school lunch menus, and news of extracurricular activities, the companies said at a recent ceremony attended by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley.

The Family Education Network is offering similar services to other districts throughout the country. The network's sites reserve space for the districts to sell advertising and include links to the Boston company's publications, which offer parents advice on how to raise their children.

Kansas Extends Budget Boost

School districts in Kansas would be able to supplement the per-pupil expenditure provided by the state for another five years, under a plan approved by the legislature this month, but the amount of extra money districts could raise would diminish gradually over time.

As part of the state's 1992 School Finance Act, Kansas' 304 districts were allowed to supplement their state-authorized per-pupil expenditure by up to 25 percent of the base amount--if local taxpayers consented to an increase in property taxes. Initially, such supplemental funding was to have been subject to a districtwide vote every four years.

About half of the districts have been able to pass such measures, known as local-option budgets.

Under the plan approved this month, districts where per-pupil spending is 25 percent above the base amount provided by the state would have their local-option-budgeting authority reduced by 5 percent in each of the next four years, beginning in 1998-99. Lower-spending districts would be able to adopt local-option budgets without having to petition voters for their approval.

Ky. Orders Spec. Ed. Review

State officials in Kentucky have ordered the Fayette County school district to sort through and adjust nearly 1,300 of its special education students' records.

The move follows a state education department investigation last fall that revealed that many of the district's special education evaluations were lacking vital information or otherwise incomplete.

School districts are required to complete thorough evaluations of students before placing them in special education programs.

Special education students are supposed to be re-evaluated periodically after their placements are assigned.

Fayette County failed to create and maintain proper records, state education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross said, and the special education program's paperwork is "one big mess."

Fayette County officials did not return calls for comment.

Mich. School Board on Block?

In a move he says would improve education leadership in Michigan, a Republican state lawmaker has proposed a constitutional amendment to do away with the state school board.

The plan offered by Sen. Bill Bullard Jr. calls for abolishing the eight-member elected board as of Jan. 1, 1999.

The board currently hires the state superintendent and oversees the education department, although its authority is limited. Also under the plan, the governor would appoint the schools chief.

The board also came under attack in December, when Gov. John Engler, also a Republican, shifted some of its traditional responsibilities to the superintendent.

That move is being challenged in court.

"It is time to streamline government to better develop long-term direction, policy, and leadership for the department of education and the citizens of this state," Mr. Bullard said in a written statement.

His resolution is considered a long shot by political observers. It would require passage by two-thirds of the House and the Senate and approval in a general election.

States Spending Moderately

States are tightening their fiscal belts, striving for trimmer, fitter government, according to a report released last week by the National Governors' Association.

"Faced with the unprecedented challenge of a shift in responsibility from the federal government to the states and a shared national goal of achieving a balanced budget, governors are embracing the guiding principles of efficiency, austerity, and improved management in developing state budgets," said Raymond C. Scheppach, the NGA's executive director.

Using fiscal 1997 and proposed fiscal 1998 budget figures, the report says that although 1997 will be the seventh year of economic recovery nationwide, governors have been proposing moderate spending increases, modest tax cuts, and greater budget reserves in the 1990s.

States estimate an increase in general fund spending of 4.5 percent for 1997 and 3.6 percent for 1998. The report does not specifically address education spending.

Copies of the report are $25, plus $5.95 shipping and handling. For more information, call NGA Publications at (301)498-3738.

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