News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup

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Texas Grand Jury Indicts Board Members

A grand jury in Austin, Texas, has indicted two current members and one former member of the state board of education on misdemeanor charges of violating the state open-meetings law.

The Travis County grand jury on Aug. 29 handed up the indictments regarding an alleged August 2000 incident in which the three then-board members met for lunch in a popular Austin deli and conducted business of the board's finance committee. Three financial advisers who allegedly discussed management of the state's Permanent School Fund with the board members during the lunch were also indicted.

The six men are charged with conspiring to circumvent the Texas Open Meetings Act and holding a closed meeting. They each face fines of up to $500 and up to six months in jail for each of the two misdemeanor counts. Indicted were current board members David Bradley and Joe J. Bernal; former board member Bob Offutt; and the three advisers.

The criminal charges, brought by Travis County Attorney Ken Oden, allege that the board members, who constituted a quorum of the finance committee, sat at different tables in Katz's Deli and Bar and discussed business with the advisers in violation of the open-meetings law.

The defendants have denied that they were discussing board business at the deli that day.

—Mark Walsh

New Scrutiny For Ariz. Charters

Arizona will be asking for more information from its charter school applicants this school year. The State Board for Charter Schools has changed the charter school application to require more details about proposed schools' budgets, curriculum, and future plans.

In addition, a three-member committee of successful charter operators has been established to review the charter applications. In addition to a three- year budget outline, starting this year, applicants must also submit "start-up" budgets that detail their plans for raising funds to supplement the state allocations.

The move comes after several charter schools in the state shut down during the last school year, mainly due to financial problems. But an official with the board, said the move was not designed to make it tougher to open a charter school, but rather to get more complete information about proposed schools and their plans. In return, the state board is giving applicants more help in the application process.

—Joetta L. Sack

Mobile Phones Get OK in Calif.

In light of changing security considerations after Sept. 11 of last year, California has repealed a ban on mobile phones, pagers, and other electronic devices in schools.

School boards across the Golden State now will determine policies to govern the use of such devices in schools. Lawmakers altered the policy after many parents and school officials cited the possible need to call for emergency help or family members in case of terrorist attacks or other emergencies.

"By allowing school districts to let [their] students use cell phones and pagers, families can communicate better and students can feel a greater sense of security while at school," Gov. Gray Davis, a Democrat, said while signing the bill on Aug. 28.

On Sept. 11 last year, students' cellphones were used to help evacuate a high school that was near a laboratory believed to be a terrorist target. Previously, the devices were banned from campuses and school-sponsored activities, though some say the ban was not enforced.

—Joetta L. Sack

Calif. Charter Wins Case

A state judge has ordered a California school district to provide a facility for a charter school within its boundaries. The case was the first test of a new state law that requires school districts to provide facilities to local charter schools.

Meanwhile, operators of the Aurora Charter High School, who filed the lawsuit, held classes at the local library and a park during the first days of school last week as they waited to see how the 7,400-student Sequoia Union district, the defendant in the case, would respond to the order. ("Calif. Suit Seeks Court Resolution to Tiff Over Charter Facility Funds," Aug. 7, 2002.).

The school, which was sponsored by a nearby elementary school district, took the Sequoia district to court over Proposition 39, which mandates that districts provide facilities for charter schools. Sequoia officials had argued that the law could force districts to build expensive facilities for charters they did not approve or schools that may not have stable enrollments.

The ruling was closely watched by charter advocates in California because it would answer two lingering questions: whether school districts must provide facilities for charter schools they did not sponsor, and whether an elementary district can sponsor a charter high school.

San Mateo County Superior Court Judge Quentin Kopp said yes to both matters.

Aurora, which has enrolled 95 students for this fall, remained in limbo late last week as its leaders scrambled to find a permanent place to hold classes.

Sequoia officials said they have not decided whether to appeal.

—Joetta L. Sack

Vol. 22, Issue 2, Page 20

Published in Print: September 11, 2002, as News in Brief: A State Capitals Roundup
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