News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Neb., N.D. High Courts Rule Against Deals for Teachers

Free agency and signing bonuses, two labor practices popular in professional sports, won't be available to teachers anytime soon in two states.

The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled last month that school districts cannot offer signing bonuses to teachers outside of the districts' negotiated salary schedules. Meanwhile, the North Dakota Supreme Court ruled that a school counselor could not negotiate his own salary, because such positions were covered by the teachers' union contract.

In the Nebraska case, the 1,400-student Crete school district in 2000 sought to hire an industrial arts teacher at a salary of $24,000 a year, $3,000 above its starting salary for new teachers. At the time, the district and the Crete Education Association were negotiating a new contract, and district administrators believed the new base salary would be close to $24,000. After the new contract ended up with a base salary of $21,650, the district offered the industrial arts teacher a signing bonus to make up the difference between the base and the $24,000 he was promised.

The teachers' union challenged the bonus as prohibited by state law. The state supreme court, in a unanimous Dec. 13 ruling upholding the state Commission on Industrial Relations, agreed that the district had negotiated in bad faith and engaged in "direct dealing" outside the collective-bargaining agreement.

The North Dakota case concerned Dale Hilton, who had negotiated his own contract as a part-time counselor in the 270-student Center district. When the Center Education Association challenged the separate contract, the district declined to renew it and offered Mr. Hilton a contract within the teachers' collective bargaining agreement.

The counselor sued the union and the school district, arguing that he was not a classroom teacher covered by the teachers' contract. In a Dec. 20 decision, the state supreme court unanimously disagreed.

—Mark Walsh

West Chester, Pa., Board To Name School for Rustin

The West Chester, Pa., school board has decided to stand by its decision to name a new high school after the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.

In a 6-3 vote on Dec. 16, the board affirmed a decision made last May to name its $63 million school after Mr. Rustin, a West Chester native who went on to become a top aide to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Mr. Rustin died in 1987.

Objections had begun mounting as local residents learned that Mr. Rustin, a Quaker and pacifist, had refused to serve in any capacity in World War II, that he had belonged for four years to a Communist youth organization, and that he was gay. ("Pa. Board Divided Over Naming School for Rustin," Dec. 11, 2002.)

—Catherine Gewertz

Longtime Union Leader To Step Down in Boston

The president of the Boston Teachers' Union has decided not to seek re-election after 20 years heading the group.

Edward J. Doherty, who has been a full-time officer with the 8,500-member union for 28 years, surprised unionists and city leaders last month when he announced his intention to leave the American Federation of Teachers affiliate. He said it was simply time for him to move on, and threw his support behind the union's longtime vice president, Thomas Gosnell. Union members will elect new leaders in June.

Known as reform-minded, the 58-year-old leader has also fought hard for traditional big-city union protections for veteran teachers. The former English teacher, who made an unsuccessful run to become Boston's mayor in 1991, said he would consider other jobs and might return to the classroom.

—Bess Keller

Ohio Board Votes to Settle Suit by Demoted Principal

An Ohio school district has offered $313,000 to settle a federal lawsuit brought by a former principal who claimed district officials had retaliated against her for voicing concerns about a teacher who had used school computers to view pornography.

The litigation against the 1,500-student Wellington Exempted School District stems from the spring of 2000, when Nancy Fisher, then the principal of Westwood Elementary School, questioned whether the district had done enough in response to the pornography incident, which involved a teacher at the district's only high school.

After she expressed her worries at district meetings, Ms. Fisher's contract was shortened from three years to one year. District leaders later removed her from her principalship, according to Ms. Fisher.

Last month, the school board signed off on a settlement offer to end the lawsuit, which had been filed in U.S. District Court in Youngstown, Ohio. Although maintaining that the changes in Ms. Fisher's job status had resulted from her performance, not retaliation, lawyers for the district said school officials wanted to put the case behind them.

—Jeff Archer

Boston Embraces Plan For Smaller High Schools

The Boston school district has decided to restructure all of its high schools into smaller schools.

Approved on Dec. 18 by the Boston School Committee, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant's plan envisions that all 12 of the district's regular high schools will reorganize so that they each contain two or more smaller schools.

Some schools, such as South Boston High and Dorchester High, already are beginning such conversions. The rest are expected to complete similar changes within five years, said Michael Contompasis, the district's chief operating officer.

High schools in the 64,000-student district currently serve from 800 to 1,500 students. At the same time, the district plans to give extra help to subsets of struggling students by opening two new programs in the 2003-04 academic year.

—Catherine Gewertz

Detroit Schools CEO Revokes Debit Cards

Top school administrators in Detroit have been barred from using their district debit cards after some expenses they charged were considered questionable.

Chief Executive Officer Kenneth S. Burnley temporarily revoked the use of the cards last month and asked for a staff review of debit-card bills to identify any possible misuse of funds.

The 168,000-student district has hired a former auditor general for New York City's public schools to change current policies for the use of the debit cards, said Robert F. Moore, a senior deputy chief executive officer.

According to local news accounts, some senior staff members had used their debit cards to purchase flowers and pay for staff lunches. LaVonne M. Sheffield, the chief academic officer, has reimbursed the district for almost $6,000, including money spent on donations to a university and a local arts society. A recent Detroit News article reported that Ms. Sheffield said she had not misspent district money but had repaid any expenses for which she could not locate a receipt.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Ky. School Board Prohibits All Student-Club Meetings

The Boyd County, Ky., school board has voted unanimously to bar all student clubs from meeting at its high school, including a gay-straight group that has faced vocal community opposition for the past year.

The five-member board voted on Dec. 20 to temporarily prohibit all clubs—academic and noncurricular—from meeting at the eastern Kentucky district's high school until June 30. Superintendent Bill Capehart said the district plans to develop a new student-club policy.

Tamara Lange, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, based in New York City, said her organization believes it is the first time a district has barred both curricular and noncurricular clubs in an effort to keep a gay-straight club from meeting. ("Ky. Protests Highlight Increasing Visibility of Gay-Straight Clubs," Nov. 27, 2002.)

But Mr. Capehart said the district's revised student-club policy would not keep Boyd County High School's gay-rights group from meeting. Instead, he hopes a social worker or counselor will be assigned to work with the club.

—Karla Scoon Reid

New York City Company Accused of E-Rate Fraud

Federal prosecutors in New York City have charged the owner and three employees of Connect2 Internet Networks Inc. with bilking $9 million from the federal E-rate program, which provides subsidies to hook up schools to the Internet.

The men were charged with eight counts of federal crimes, including wire fraud, false claims on government programs, and obstruction of justice.

Authorities arrested the defendants in December; a preliminary court hearing is scheduled for later this month, when the defendants will enter pleas. Connect2, based in Staten Island, N.Y., was the Internet provider for 200 schools in New York City and New Jersey.

The lawyer representing the company's owner could not be reached for comment.

—Rhea R. Borja

Vol. 22, Issue 16, Page 4

Published in Print: January 8, 2003, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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