News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Cleveland's Mayor White Says He Won't Run Again

Cleveland Mayor Michael R. White, who appoints the city's board of education and picked its chief executive officer, won't run for a fourth term this coming fall.

His announcement late last month of his plans to step down appeared to surprise most residents.

Mr. White was first elected mayor in 1989 after serving as an Ohio state senator. In 1998, the state legislature gave the mayor control of the city's 76,000-student district. Mr. White appointed a nine-member board and hired New York educator Barbara Byrd-Bennett as the district's chief executive officer.

On May 8, the mayor, along with Ms. Byrd-Bennett, celebrated the passage of a $335 million bond issue to repair and renovate district schools. The bond issue also qualifies the district for a $500 million state match. Some believed that victory would positively influence Mr. White's fourth bid for mayor.

As long as the school governance structure remains unchanged, the mayor's decision will not affect Ms. Byrd-Bennett's future, said William W. Wendling, the district's chief communications officer. Ms. Byrd-Bennett has said that she will not work for an elected school board. ("On Borrowed Time," May 16, 2001.)

Voters will consider keeping a mayorally appointed school board in a referendum in 2002. The vote is considered by some to be an indicator of Cleveland voters' satisfaction with the leadership of Mr. White and Ms. Byrd-Bennett.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Miami Board Member Suspended

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush suspended Demetrio Pérez Jr., a member of the Miami-Dade County school board, last week after a federal grand jury in Miami indicted Mr. Pérez on felony charges of mail fraud and making false statements in connection with a federal housing program.

Mr. Pérez, 55, will plead not guilty to all of the 21 counts in the indictment at a court hearing scheduled for June 6, said Jeffrey S. Weiner, a Miami attorney representing Mr. Pérez.

Mr. Pérez has served on the board of the 361,000-student Florida district since 1996. He was charged with 10 counts of mail fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, stemming from an alleged scheme to defraud a program of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that pays rent subsidies to landlords to aid low-income families, according to Guy A. Lewis, the U.S. attorney for the southern district of Florida.

Two tenants allege that Mr. Pérez, who owns a four-unit apartment building in Miami, charged them illegal payments in addition to their subsidized rent over a period of several years, according to the indictment.

In addition, Mr. Pérez was charged with 10 counts of allegedly lying to conceal the scheme. Each of the 21 charges carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Under the Florida Constitution, the governor can remove public officials who are charged with a felony.

—Andrew Trotter

Suit Over R.I. Essay Settled

The Johnston School Department in Johnston, R.I., and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island have reached a settlement in a lawsuit over a student's suspension for a creative-writing essay he submitted for class that was deemed by school officials to show suicidal or homicidal tendencies.

The settlement, reached last month, calls for all records of the incident to be expunged from 11th grader Matthew Parent's records, and for the district to pay $4,500 for his legal fees.

Michael Jolin, the superintendent of the 3,400-student district, said officials at the boy's school had requested last November that he be evaluated before returning to school from the suspension.

His parents and the ACLU responded by filing a lawsuit contending that he had been suspended without due process and that his right to free speech had been violated.

Steven Brown, the executive director of the ACLU in Rhode Island, said the school was ordered by the court to give the student a due-process hearing last fall, at which point he was allowed back in school. The settlement "will send a message to school administrators to think twice before suspending students," he said.

Superintendent Jolin stressed that the district "admits no guilt by settling this case. We're just saving money for the taxpayers." He said that, given the same situation, he would "absolutely" do what he had done in Mr. Parent's case.

—Vanessa Dea

Bacterial Illness Kills Students

An Ohio community is coming to grips with the deaths of two teenage students from a rare illness caused by bacteria.

Jonathan Stauffer, 15, a freshman at West Branch High School in Beloit, died on May 26 of a severe infection of the blood caused by neisseria meningitidis, the same organism that causes meningitis.

Kelly Coblentz, 16, a sophomore at the same high school, died two days later of the same illness.

Louis A. Ramunno, the superintendent of the 2,600- student West Branch school district, said that the students had attended a school picnic on May 25, and that the picnic was the only occasion they were known to have attended together recently.

The bacteria can be spread by drinking from the same vessel or using the same utensils. It is rarely fatal.

Health officials haven't yet determined how the students contracted the illness.

School was canceled last week to give the community the opportunity to get a better understanding of what had happened and mourn the students who died, Mr. Ramunno said.

"This is a rare and isolated occurrence, so it's hard to come to grips with it," he said.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Condom Giveaway Brings Trouble

Lissette Stanley, a Tampa, Fla., high school student and the president of her senior class, was removed from her elected office and barred from speaking at graduation after she and other students filled gift bags with condoms at the school's prom.

Ms. Stanley, who graduated May 29 from Blake High School in the 150,000-student Hillsborough County district, maintained that she believed she had done a good deed by distributing the condoms. But her principal, who tried to confiscate the condoms at the prom, said that she didn't have permission to distribute them, and that such distribution would not have been allowed.

Linda Cobbe, a spokeswoman for the school district, said the district has no policy barring the distribution of condoms, but she added that the school board has voted against condom distribution in the past.

"Our policy is to teach abstinence," she said.

—Alan Richard

Senior Barred From Ceremony

Lindsay Brown did not join her classmates at the May 29 graduation ceremony for Estero High School, held a few hours after a federal judge refused to block a ban on her attendance imposed by the Lee County, Fla., school district because a table knife had been found in her car.

The 57,000-student district suspended the honors student and barred her from attending graduation with her class after a security official saw a 5-inch serrated table knife in her car in the school parking lot and called police. She was arrested for possessing a weapon on campus.

Ms. Brown, 18, said the piece of flatware had dropped from a box when she moved the previous weekend to attend college, according to the Charlottesville, Va.-based Rutherford Institute.

The legal-advocacy group provided the lawyer who filed her request for a temporary restraining order, which was denied by U.S. District Judge John Steele in Fort Myers.

Ms. Brown is scheduled to appear in court on the weapons charge on June 22.

—Andrew Trotter

La. Strike Ends After 4 Days

Employees returned to work last week in the 24,000-student Rapides Parish school district in Alexandria, La., after a four-day strike.

Workers will be paid for the days of the strike and will not face retribution for participating in or organizing the job action, under an agreement signed by the leaders of the Rapides Association of Educators, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and Superintendent Patsy Jenkins, according to local news reports.

The strike focused on better pay for noncertified employees and delaying raises for central-office administrators.

—Alan Richard

Vol. 20, Issue 39, Page 4

Published in Print: June 6, 2001, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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