News in Brief: A National Roundup

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N.J. May Return Some Powers to Jersey City

In a move that brings the Jersey City schools a step closer to ending more than a decade of state oversight, New Jersey's commissioner of education has recommended that the local school board be given control over the district budget.

Last summer, having made notable academic strides since being taken over by the state in 1989, the Jersey City school board was given control over curriculum and policy matters as part of a gradual return to self-governance. Commissioner David C. Hespe said last week that because the board had handled that responsibility successfully, it was time to return additional decisionmaking power.

Mr. Hespe also recommended that a 13-member transition team be appointed to draft a plan for the final stages of returning the district to local control, and that the local school board demonstrate its capacity to lead effectively by adopting more-stringent guidelines for ethics and professional responsibility.

In 1989, Jersey City was the first district taken over under a state law allowing seizure of districts that are "academically bankrupt."

—Catherine Gewertz

Harrisburg Sues Over New Law

The Harrisburg, Pa., school board has filed a lawsuit alleging that a new law granting state officials permission to take over the district is unconstitutional.

In the suit filed in Commonwealth Court June 1, the school board asserts that the Educational Empowerment Act, which Gov. Tom Ridge signed into law May 10, singles out the 8,800-student district for takeover in a manner that violates the state constitution.

The measure gave nine other districts three years to improve before they would face takeovers, but directed the mayor of Harrisburg to appoint a new school board for the state's capital city by July 1. Another district, the Chester-Upland schools near Philadelphia, will be operated by a state-appointed board beginning on that date. ("Pa. Targets 11 Districts for Takeover," May 17, 2000.)

State legislators have noted that Harrisburg is one of the few Pennsylvania districts whose scores on state tests have declined in recent years, and they contend its problems are grave enough to require immediate intervention.

But Royce Morris, the Harrisburg school board lawyer, said lawmakers unfairly passed the legislation without consulting with local officials. "It was stealth legislation, sneak legislation," he maintained. "When you single out one district with different treatment, our constitution says that is not permitted."

—Jessica L. Sandham

Ala. County To Bail Out District

The Jefferson County, Ala., commissioners have agreed to help bail out the county school system from its mounting debt with a $40 million bond issue.

Responding to a request from state schools Superintendent Ed Richardson, the county commission approved a preliminary plan last month to assist the district in dealing with a $24 million deficit projected for this school year and nearly $20 million in bank loans. The district's current budget is $255 million. In February, the state took over the 42,000-student system with the aim of resolving its financial difficulties.

Although details of the plan had yet to be worked out, the school board would repay the debt over a 20-year period. The commissioners have indicated that they want to meet regularly with the board and receive periodic reports about the system's finances. The state and the county commission hope to make the plan final this summer.

—Erik W. Robelen

Chicago Retests 49 8th Graders

The entire 8th grade at a Chicago school had to take a standardized test a second time after the district discovered that one or more school employees had cheated by changing answers on every one of the tests.

Blondean Davis, the director of schools and regions for the 430,000-student Chicago school system, said the cheating at Carpenter Elementary School in the northwest part of the city had been uncovered in a routine, random audit of scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

The scores of the 49 students drew attention because they were one to two years above the level required for promotion to the next grade, Ms. Davis said. There were other irregularities as well, such as evidence that the answers to the last 12 questions on many tests had been erased and identical answers entered.

"We know the tests were tampered with, and we know it wasn't the children that were involved," Ms. Davis said. She declined to reveal the number of employees suspected of cheating, saying only that results of the investigation would not be released until after the June 9 graduation.

All 49 students took the ITBS a second time, and "none of the inflated scores held," Ms. Davis said.

—Catherine Gewertz

Charlotte OKs Assignment Plan

Beginning in the fall of 2001, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools will stop using race to determine where students attend school.

The policy adopted earlier this month will let parents choose schools that are close to their homes and could result in a change of schools for up to a third of the district's 101,000 students. It will end student-assignment and busing patterns that the district used to maintain racial balance since being ordered by a federal judge to integrate its schools in 1969.

The new policy complies with a federal court ruling last September that found the district free from the vestiges of segregation and ordered an end to the 30-year-old desegregation plan that had ushered in an era of large-scale mandatory busing around the country.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's school board is appealing that ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va.

—Robert C. Johnston

Pa. School Retains Tax Status

A private Pennsylvania boarding school cannot be stripped of its tax-exempt status as a public charity for not admitting girls, a state court ruled last week.

The case involving the 470-student Hill School in Pottstown was being watched closely as a threat to the tax-exempt status of all single-sex private educational institutions in the state. The 3,200-student Pottstown district petitioned its local tax-assessment board in 1996 to remove the school's tax-exempt status because of the school's admissions policy. The board rejected the challenge, and the district appealed in Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas.

Senior Judge Richard Lowe initially ruled for the district, but reconsidered his decision and upheld the school's status in a June 5 ruling.

Joseph E. Bresnan, a lawyer representing the Pottstown district, said the ruling would be appealed.

Mark Walsh

Food Vendors Charged in N.Y.C.

Some food suppliers to the New York City schools have been accused of forming a conspiracy that raised prices and charged too much for frozen foods and fresh produce.

The U.S. Department of Justice alleges that 22 individuals and 13 food companies rigged bids to ensure extra-high profits that totaled millions of dollars. Some companies also were accused of inflating prices for the New York agency that provides food to hospitals and jails and to other school districts.

—Alan Richard

Fla. District Raises Teacher Pay

Educators in Pinellas County, Fla., are set to get their first substantial pay raise in about a decade, thanks in large measure to the intense competition for teachers in the Sunshine State.

Under a one-year contract ratified by members of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association last week, teachers will receive an average increase of 7.7 percent. Many of the less experienced teachers in the 109,000-student district will see raises of up to 10 percent. Raises of 4 percent have been more typical since the early 1990s, said Jade Moore, the president of the National Education Association affiliate.

The contract—which includes $1,000 bonuses for newly hired teachers—reflects the increased aggressiveness of Florida districts in vying with other systems for teachers.

Last month, the nearby Hillsborough County schools announced a hike in starting salaries from $27,000 to $30,000. Earlier this year, the Florida legislature allocated $60 million specifically to help schools offer more-attractive compensation packages.

Said Mr. Moore: "The law of supply and demand is kicking in, and when that happens, you will be seeing teachers' salaries increase dramatically over the next five years."

—Jeff Archer

Vol. 19, Issue 40, Page 4

Published in Print: June 14, 2000, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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