News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Fla. Parents Drop Suit Over Gifted Programs

Parents who sued the state of Florida over its admission criteria for gifted programs have dropped their complaint in the wake of promises from the state to change its policies.

The parents of white children in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties sued last year in state court and this year in federal court, claiming that Florida's policy of setting different standards for admission to the programs was discriminatory.

Under the state's 9-year-old "Plan B" program, designed to increase minority representation in classes for gifted students, different test standards were required for various racial groups.

The parents claimed the policy violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Bill Helfand, the Houston-based lawyer representing the parents, said the lawsuits were discontinued because state officials have indicated they will change the policy through their rule-making process.

While the new regulations have not yet been written, state officials said they would work out a plan that did not take race into account. The policy change would be in line with Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative, which has ended affirmative action in awarding government contracts and in higher education admissions.

Developing a new policy for admission into gifted programs is expected to take several months, according to JoAnn Carrin, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

—Ann Bradley

Sub Wins Discrimination Case

A federal jury in Chicago has awarded more than $300,000 to a former substitute teacher who argued that she was barred from a full-time teaching position because she is black.

Valerie Bennett, 44, filed the lawsuit in 1996 against Community Unit School District 200, a 14,400- student system serving four western suburbs of Chicago. A former classroom teacher from Texas who also had worked as a substitute and a part-time teacher in District 200, Ms. Bennett claimed that racial discrimination had kept her from being hired for five different full-time teaching positions.

Charging the district with violating Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, her lawyer pointed out that in many cases, someone with less education or experience had been hired instead of her. Interview panels at each site also included only white staff members, he added.

District officials had countered that other applicants had professional backgrounds more suited to the positions for which Ms. Bennett had applied. They also said budget constraints meant they had to consider the cost of paying a more experienced candidate.

A jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois issued a verdict Sept. 7 in Ms. Bennett's favor, and ordered the school system to pay her $60,273 in lost wages and $240,000 for emotional distress. The district's lawyers said they planned to file a motion to invalidate the judgment, and would appeal if that failed.

—Jeff Archer

Deal Backfires in Anchorage

What began as a plan to save money for the 50,000-student Anchorage, Alaska, school district ended up costing the superintendent his job.

School board members approved a contract in late August that made eight- year Superintendent Bob Christal a private consultant hired to manage the district. His fee was to be $160,000—a considerable raise over his $115,000 salary, but about $23,000 less than the district would have paid for both his salary and benefits.

The agreement allowed him to begin claiming retirement benefits.

But the plan backfired. Board members introduced the plan only a few days before approving it, sparking public outcry and accusations that Mr. Christal was double-dipping. The board voted Sept. 7 to terminate the contract at Mr. Christal's request, leaving the district without a leader.

Carol Comeau, who has been the assistant superintendent for instruction since 1993, is now the interim superintendent.

—Alan Richard

Shooter's Uncle Sentenced

A Michigan judge has sentenced to prison the man who was accused of leaving a gun accessible to a 6-year-old boy who used it to kill a classmate.

Jamelle James, 20, the uncle of the boy, was sentenced to two to 15 years in prison by a judge of the Genesee County Circuit Court, according to a clerk of the court. Mr. James had pleaded no contest last month to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

The boy had taken the gun to Buell Elementary School in Mount Morris Township, Mich., last February and used it in the fatal shooting of 6- year-old Kayla Rowland.

Prosecutors deemed the boy too young to be held responsible for the shooting, and he was not charged.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Wis. District Rethinks Drill

The superintendent of a suburban district outside Milwaukee postponed a mock disaster drill this month after parents complained that the exercise was too sensational and would create a bad image of their school.

"People didn't want the news to show pictures of a helicopter and violent activities, because they didn't want those pictures associated with their school," said Matt Gibson, the superintendent of the 7,500-student Elmbrook district. "I am sensitive to those concerns."

The event, which had been scheduled for this week at Pilgrim Park Middle School, would have used off- duty police and fire officers to stage a practice rescue of students held hostage in the school by mock gunmen. Police helicopters were also to have been used in the drill; they would have hovered over the school to transport any "wounded."

Mr. Gibson said he intends to reschedule the event, but students won't be used to play the hostages.

Jessica Portner

New Recall Affects Buses

School transportation officials were once again checking their school bus fleets for problems after a Sept.7 recall by the Blue Bird Corp.

The recall by the Macon, Ga.-based company affected the All American model buses manufactured since March 1998. Cables in the buses' steering columns can become chafed, resulting in an electrical short, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

A letter from Blue Bird to NHTSA said the recall included 1,581 buses.

The recall was the second in recent weeks to affect school buses. The Bendix Corp. of Elyria, Ohio, had earlier warned that 46,000 buses nationwide, including 6,000 Thomas Built school buses, needed to be inspected for possible problems with their anti-lock brake systems.

—Adrienne D. Coles

Boston Probes Lost Books

Driven by the loss of unknown numbers of textbooks, school officials in Boston are working to devise a textbook-inventory and -control system to track down books and help ensure their return.

At a briefing to mark the start of school, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant urged a "full-court press" from parents, teachers, and students on the problem of lost schoolbooks. A week later, on Sept. 12, he met with leading district administrators to discuss the need for a more detailed, districtwide book inventory and tougher enforcement measures.

District spokeswoman Tracey Lynch said the superintendent was concerned about repeated pleas by principals for more books, when the district has spent $11 million over the past five years on new textbooks in the core subjects.

District officials don't know exactly how many books are being lost, because schools do not report consistent book-inventory information, she said. The schools usually know which students have not returned books, Ms. Lynch said, but can't enforce their return.

At the meeting with administrators, Mr. Payzant discussed exploring two possible ways to reduce book losses: adopting a bar-code system that would allow for better tracking of books, and enhancing the district's computer intranet system to include book inventories in more detail, such as by school, classroom, or student.

—Catherine Gerwertz

Vol. 20, Issue 3, Page 4

Published in Print: September 20, 2000, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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