News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Kansas Student Dies in Pole Vaulting Accident

A 17-year-old high school senior from Wichita, Kan., died April 1 after sustaining head injuries at a high school pole vaulting competition.

The student, who attended Wichita Southeast High School, died two days after losing control during his jump. His body hit a protective mat, but the back of his head struck bare pavement.

Officials of the 50,000-student Wichita school district said they were reviewing the accident. A district spokeswoman said the pole vault pit and mat met state guidelines.

In February, a pole vaulter at Pennsylvania State University died after striking his head during a championship indoor meet. His death prompted a bill now pending in New York state to require helmets for high school and college pole vaulters.

According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, 19 fatal pole vaulting accidents have occurred at high schools in the United States since 1992.

—John Gehring

N.M. District Ponders How To Fill Board Vacancies

The remaining members of the Las Cruces, N.M., school board are still debating how to fill the slots of two board members who were ousted in a recent recall election.

State law requires the remaining three board members to appoint two new members to fill the vacancies, but the board has not decided on the process for selection, said Jo Galvan, a spokeswoman for the 22,000-student district. The board was scheduled to discuss the issue at its meeting this week.

"They know they have to do it," Ms. Galvan said. "They just don't know how to select someone. The law doesn't specify."

The appointed members would fill the positions until the next election, in February 2003.

Board members Mary Tucker and Jeanette Dickerson were ousted in an April 2 recall election. The two were the only board members who served on the previous board, which has been accused of violating the state's open-meetings law.

State's Attorney Patricia Madrid has charged the previous board with approving a series of incentives in closed-door meetings in 2000 and 2001 to retain former superintendent Jesse. L. Gonzales.

Ms. Tucker and Ms. Dickerson did not return phone calls seeking comment.

—Lisa Fine

Chicago District Disbands Elementary School Council

The Chicago board of education has voted to disband the elected local council that helps manage a city elementary school, saying the hostility between the group and the school's principal had prompted an "educational crisis."

A new group of parents, teachers, and community members charged with helping to run Wendell Smith Elementary School, which enrolls 624 students in grades K-8, will be elected May 1 as part of citywide elections for the district's local school councils.

The district board voted March 27 to disband Wendell Smith's current school council after receiving feedback from a hearing officer assigned to look into the conflict between the group and the principal.

The hearing officer determined, among other findings, that the school's council members interfere with teachers by showing up unannounced in their classrooms.

—Catherine Gewertz

Piper, Kan., School Board Addresses Plagiarism Issue

Bowing to a county prosecutor, the Piper, Kan., school board held a public meeting April 2 to discuss a cheating scandal and a controversial decision made in December to lessen the penalty applied to the semester grade of 28 students accused by their teacher of plagiarism. But the board also voted to let the reduced penalty stand.

The teacher, Christine Pelton, resigned because of the December decision. ("Plagiarism Controversy Engulfs Kansas School," April 3, 2002.)

Wyandotte County District Attorney Nick A. Tomasic required the meeting as part of a settlement of a civil complaint he filed against the board alleging violations of the state's open-meetings law.

After hearing public comments, however, the board stood by the revised grades for the project, with six of the seven members voting in favor and one abstention, which counts as "opposed" under Kansas law.

The board members also voted to pay fines for going into closed session at the earlier meeting to discuss the plagiarism incident. Each will pay $250, and the board as a whole will pay $1,238 in investigation and court costs.

—Andrew Trotter

Vermont Board Election Is Still Up in the Air

A Vermont judge has thrown out the results of an election for a contested seat on the Winooski school board and ordered a new vote for next week.

Superior Court Judge Mary Miles Teachout said in her March 26 ruling that election-day recording irregularities rendered two previous recounts unreliable. The first came at the request of incumbent board President Thomas Kane, who in the March 5 election lost to challenger Wendy Whaples Scully on a tally of 417-415.

In the first recount, the incumbent claimed victory by seven votes. In a second recount, the result of an appeal to the superior court by the challenger, the incumbent again won, this time by four votes.

But Judge Teachout said errors on the part of Winooski election officials made it impossible to determine the outcome.

The new election has been set for April 23.

—Bess Keller

Toxic Leak May Cost Oregon District $94,600

A leaking light fixture may drain $94,600 in fines from the tiny Camas Valley schools in Oregon, according to a formal federal complaint school officials received this month.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency charges that David Gianotti, who is the superintendent, the principal, and a science teacher in the 135-student district, committed "flagrant violations" of the federal toxic-substances law in the way he dealt with a faulty lighting fixture in a combined 2nd and 3rd grade classroom.

The EPA says a small fire in January 2001 caused a release of polychlorinated biphynyls, or PCBs, from the fixture. PCBs, a chemical linked to a variety of health problems, were used as insulators in fluorescent lighting fixtures until production of the chemical was banned in the late 1970s, but many PCB-bearing lights are still in schools, the agency said.

An EPA inspector visited the classroom in February of last year and found high levels of PCBs. The agency criticized Mr. Gianotti for sending a letter to parents, after students and a teacher complained of an odor in the room, "indicating that there were no health effects attributable to the light fixture and that the fixture did not contain PCBs," according to an EPA statement. The agency said the district's misconduct warrants the "stiff fines."

Mr. Gianotti said the agency did not reveal the results of its test until now.

A statement by district officials said they believed that all PCB-containing lighting fixtures were replaced in 1992, and that Mr. Gianotti followed instructions by a local electrician and the EPA inspector for dealing with fluorescent lights. They also said the fixtures in the classroom were labeled "contains no PCBs."

—Andrew Trotter

Alaska School Reopens; Receives State Review

A small Alaska school that closed its doors in February after almost half its teachers resigned over concerns for their safety, reopened last month with a new security officer.

Charles Mason, the chief executive officer of the 2,200-student Northwest Arctic Borough School District, ordered the closing of the McQueen School in Kivalina on Feb. 27 after teachers complained of being threatened and harassed by students and most of the staff requested transfers. The school opened March 18 with four new teachers as well.

Shirley J. Holloway, the state education commissioner, appointed a fact-finding team to investigate the school's closing. The team found that the McQueen School, which enrolls about 130 K-12 students, is plagued by low student expectations, poor student achievement, and discipline problems.

But the team's report, which was released April 1, found that the community and school district can work together to improve the school. The report concluded: "At this point the future success of McQueen School depends more on the behavior of adults than on the behavior of children."

—Karla Scoon Reid

San Diego Board Renews Superintendent's Contract

The San Diego school board voted 3-2 last week to renew the contract of its superintendent, Alan D. Bersin.

Mr. Bersin, a former federal prosecutor who was chosen to head the 141,000-student district in 1998, will be paid $189,500 a year under terms of his four-year contract, a 14 percent increase, said schools spokesman Steven Baratte. Including bonuses, his four-year compensation could top $1 million, Mr. Baratte said.

Some of Mr. Bersin's improvement plans, focusing on mathematics and literature and built around the theme of "prevention, intervention, and retention," have proved controversial. Several thousand people demonstrated against his blueprint before it was adopted in March 2000.

At last week's meeting, Mr. Bersin's board supporters described him as a strong leader, while his detractors complained that he has excluded parents in developing reform plans and has focused the district too narrowly on literacy.

—Catherine Gewertz

Vol. 21, Issue 31, Page 4

Published in Print: April 17, 2002, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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