News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Teachers Strike in Pa., R.I.; Most Unions Report Quiet

Teachers in a handful of districts in the Northeast have gone on strike this school year to fight for better pay and benefits, but contract negotiations otherwise have been amicable across the nation, according to union leaders.

Most of the strikes are taking place in Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, where teachers in suburban districts launched picket lines earlier this month.

Educators in the 6,600-student Bensalem and 4,600-student Colonial districts in suburban Philadelphia walked off the job last week. Sticking points include health-care benefits and class size.

Teachers in the 2,800- student Middletown and 1,770-student Narragansett districts near Providence, R.I., went on strike over differences in proposals for wage increases, an accountability and evaluation plan, and insurance coverage.

The rest of the nation, however, remains fairly quiet, according to the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two national teachers' unions, which have a combined membership of 3.6 million.

"There has been a downward trend in job actions over the past 10 to 15 years," said Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the NEA, adding that unions and districts are working hard to usher in an era of collaboration.

—Julie Blair

Teacher Wins $300,000 In Suit Over School Air

A jury has awarded $300,000 to a Beckley, W.Va., teacher who was fired after she refused to come to work because of illnesses she claimed were caused by environmental problems at her school.

Coal City Elementary School teacher Belinda Muovich had sinus surgery in 1989 and 1991 because of recurring sewer odors and poor ventilation in the school, according to the Associated Press. She left her job in 1996 and the school board fired her in June 1997, allegedly for failing to report to work.

The teacher's lawyer, David L. Grubb, filed her case in federal court in June 1998, and alleged the school board's actions violated the U.S. Human Rights Act, which requires employers to accommodate workers with disabilities. Mr. Grubb could not be reached for comment.

On Aug. 28, a U.S. District Court jury awarded Ms. Muovich $125,000 for emotional distress and $175,000 in back pay dating from April 1996.

Chip Williams, one of the lawyers for the Raleigh County school board, said the district will appeal the decision.

—Darcia Harris Bowman

Ore. Principal to Apologize For Letter Slamming Students

An Oregon middle school principal is having a rough start in welcoming back parents and students for the new school year, after a letter he wrote that referred to students as "snot-nosed" and "hormonally charged juvenile delinquents" was accidentally circulated more widely than he intended.

Michael Riplinger, the principal of Briggs Middle School in the 11,000-student Springfield, Ore., district, plans to meet with students to apologize for the mistake in judgment, said Cherie Kistner, a spokeswoman for the district.

"It was some locker room humor gone awry," said Ms. Kistner, to whom calls to Mr. Riplinger were referred. "Hopefully, it was enough that he issued an apology to the staff and community acknowledging a series of mistakes had been made."

The letter from Mr. Riplinger was meant to be a joke, intended for a small number of staff members who returned to the school before the start of the school year. Instead, a copy was shared with local media outlets.

The Springfield district and school board have accepted the apology, Ms. Kistner said, as has the Springfield Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

—Lisa Fine

Cleveland Modifies Contract For Teachers From India

The Cleveland school district has renegotiated contracts with an international recruiting firm after the local teachers' union raised questions.

The 76,000-student district used Teachers Placement Group, a Plainview, N.Y.-based company, to hire 40 teachers from India.

The Cleveland Teachers Union wanted to make sure that the teachers' contracts with the firm did not take advantage of them, said Richard DeColibus, the union's president.

Specifically, the contracts will now say that if a teacher wants to return to India, the recruiting firm will pay that teacher's plane fare. But if a teacher wants to move to another district, the teacher must pay the firm a fee of $15,000.

Before arriving in the United States, the teachers were required to pay the firm a fee of $7,000, and they are required to pay the firm between $1,200 and $4,000 a year, depending on their salary levels, for relocation assistance and for transporting the teachers' families to this country, Mr. DeColibus said. The new language makes these obligations clear, he said.

The district also has decided to pay Teachers Placement Group quarterly instead of yearly, to ensure that the arrangements go smoothly.

Michael Vanjani, the president of the company, could not be reached for comment.

—Michelle Galley

Phila. Mayor Withholds Money From Troubled School District

Uncertain over the future of the Philadelphia public schools, Mayor John F. Street has vetoed a $60 million payment from the city to the financially ailing system.

The funds were approved in June by the City Council to help pay for a new teachers' contract and chip away at the district's $216 million deficit in the current fiscal year.

Mayor Street, a Democrat, had promised state leaders that the city would contribute the funds as part of agreements over the past year with the state to keep the district financially solvent.

This summer, however, Mayor Street and Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, gave the state until Oct. 29 to come up with a new management plan for the district, or else take it over at some point.

Mr. Street said last week he feared that under state law, the one-time infusion of funds could end up being required by the state on an annual basis.

While a spokesman for the governor expressed surprise over the move, the mayor's education secretary, Debra Kahn, said Mayor Street had warned that without some guarantee that the city funds would constitute a one-time payment, he would pull his support.

She said the city needs to be "prepared and protected" in the event that the state takes over the schools.

—Robert Johnston

Girls Barred From Hockey After Reports of Hazing

Fourteen seniors on the girls' field hockey team at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, N.J., have been suspended for allegedly hazing younger teammates while at a summer hockey camp.

School officials learned about the allegations in an anonymous letter sent to the high school. More details emerged as other messages were left at the school maintaining that several seniors on the team had made sophomores bark like dogs, simulate oral sex on a banana, and play hockey with syrup in their pants.

The alleged incidents occurred off campus at a field hockey camp in Pennsylvania and on the bus ride home from the camp. Sophomores who said they were hazed on the bus told school officials that about a dozen players were locked inside a bus bathroom and forced to eat jalapeño peppers or fireball candies while their mouths were covered with tape.

Other students said they were forced to wear dog collars and leashes, and climb onto tables at restaurants and bark like dogs.

—John Gehring

40 Dade County Teachers Quit Union Over Insurance

Upset by what they see as a conflict of interest between their union leader and a health-care lobbyist, more than 40 Florida teachers disassociated themselves from the United Teachers of Dade in protest last week.

Educators at Flamingo Elementary School in Hialeah, part of the Miami-Dade County district, feared that UTD Executive Director Pat L. Tornillo had brokered a bad deal for them on a health- insurance package to accommodate lobbyist Eric Sisser, a longtime friend of Mr. Tornillo's, said Judy Herrell, a shop steward and 6th grade teacher at the school.

Mr. Sisser works for HIP Health Plan of Florida, a medical carrier that represents the 18,000-member union and is one of three health care providers.

Teachers are also unhappy with the union's inability to garner wage increases from the 361,000-student district, Ms. Herrell said.

"There is a need for a professional teachers' organization ... but it has to be a progressive type with a value system," Ms. Herrell said.

The suggestion that Mr. Tornillo is in league with a lobbyist is ridiculous, said Annette Katz, a spokeswoman for the union.

"His integrity is above reproach," she said.

—Julie Blair

Vol. 21, Issue 2, Page 4

Published in Print: September 12, 2001, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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