News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Memphis Schools Chief Announces Plans to Retire

Johnnie B. Watson, the superintendent of the Memphis public schools in Tennessee, announced last week that he will retire at the end of the year.

Mr. Watson, who became the superintendent of the 118,000-student district in 2000, gained national attention early in his tenure by scrapping the schoolwide improvement models put in place by his predecessor, Gerry House.

In taking that step, Mr. Watson said that the closely watched $12 million, six-year experiment in having each school adopt a reform model was not producing enough results. ("Memphis Scraps Redesign Models in All Its Schools," July 11, 2001.)

The district has been marked in recent months by increasing tension between Mr. Watson and some school board members. Last month, the superintendent filed, and than later withdrew, a harassment complaint with school board President Michael Hooks Jr. against board member Sara Lewis.

Mr. Watson, whose last day leading the district will be Dec. 31, will turn 64 in July. The board expects to launch a national search for a new schools chief.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Md. Superintendent Clarifies Disputed Writing Assignment

Howard County, Md., school administrators are disputing reports that a district student who is accused of first-degree murder was once forced to write an essay from the viewpoint of a murderer.

Ryan Furlough, a senior at Centennial High School, was charged on Jan. 8 with the murder of his friend, 17-year-old Benjamin Vassiliev, a junior at the school. Mr. Furlough allegedly put potassium cyanide in his friend's soda.

Mr. Furlough's lawyer, Jan O'Connor, told local reporters that her client suffered from mental-health problems and had shown a violent side when asked to put himself "in the shoes of a murderer" for a school assignment in 9th grade.

But John O'Rourke, the superintendent of the 46,000-student district, said in a statement last week that there was "no substance" to the claim that Mr. Furlough had been asked to write such an essay.

Mr. O'Rourke said the assignment in question has been part of the 9th grade English curriculum at Centennial High for years. It calls for students who have read To Kill a Mockingbird to choose an occupation from the book that is of interest to them and write two or three paragraphs about what a day in the life of a person in that occupation would be like.

Under district policy, Mr. O'Rourke added, teachers are not allowed to use games or exercises that force students to make life-or-death decisions.

Ms. O'Connor could not be reached for further comment.

—Hattie Brown

Calif. State Senator Proposes Bailout for Oakland Schools

A California state lawmaker has introduced a bill to cover the $80 million budget shortfall facing the Oakland Unified School District and place the system under state control.

The measure proposed by Sen. Don Perata, the leader of the Senate's Democratic majority, would provide a loan to the 53,000- student district to ensure that it can pay employees and provide basic services until the end of the school year. The bill would require a state- appointed administrator to run the district until the loan could be repaid.

The Oakland district faces the deficit—which represents about 15 percent of its $550 million operating budget—because it failed to account properly for a 24 percent raise it promised to give teachers over three years. The raises began with the current school year. ("Budget Errors Leave Schools Feeling Pinch," Jan. 8, 2003.)

Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, a Democrat who, like Mr. Perata, represents Oakland, has introduced a similar measure in the state Assembly.

—David J. Hoff

Superintendent, Union Head Step Down Following Strike

The two principal antagonists in a bitter teachers' strike that partially shuttered the Billings, Mont., school district for almost three weeks this past fall have announced their departures.

Superintendent Jo Swain said on Jan. 2 that she plans to retire from the 15,500-student district, Montana's largest, at the end of the school year. A former teacher, principal, and central-office administrator in Billings, Ms. Swain, 48, was the superintendent of the district for a tumultuous 21/2 years, marked by declining enrollments, a divided school board, and the strike.

Brian R. Ehli, the president of the Billings Education Association, said separately the same day that he would leave his elected post on Feb. 1 to become a field representative for the state teachers' union, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

The Billings Education Association is a local affiliate of the state organization and represents the district's 1,100 teachers.

—Bess Keller

Colorado District Is Sued For Refusing Bible Club

A Colorado school district's refusal to recognize a high school Bible club has led to a lawsuit alleging a violation of the federal Equal Access Act, as well as the rights to free speech and free exercise of religion of the students seeking to form the club.

Ashley Thiele and Amy Duvall, students at Monarch High School, and their parents filed a lawsuit on Jan. 6 in federal district court in Denver against the 27,000-student Boulder Valley district. The suit alleges that school administrators rejected the students' request to form a student Bible club this past fall, even though the school recognizes such noncurricular clubs as the Gay-Straight Alliance, the Multicultural Club, and a chapter of Amnesty International.

The suit maintains that administrators told Ms. Thiele that those clubs are related to the curriculum, but that the Bible club would not be. The Equal Access Act says schools receiving federal aid create a "limited open forum" when they allow any noncurricular clubs, and must treat all such clubs equally.

The lawsuit is backed by the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal-advocacy organization based in Virginia Beach, Va.

Susan Cousins, a spokeswoman for the district, said administrators were conferring with the district's lawyers about the suit.

—Mark Walsh

Fla. Oversight Board Freezes Money for Miami Schools

The state oversight board for the Miami-Dade County public schools has unexpectedly frozen $22 million in school construction money.

The decision last month may delay construction at 12 school sites and has sparked more animosity in the already tense relationship between district officials and the oversight board. The six-member board, appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2001, was set up to control the 361,000-student district's spending in light of several scandals.

After district officials warned they could lose millions of dollars in matching grants for school construction, the oversight board had released the money in November.

But Edward W. Eastin, the chairman of the oversight board, wrote in a Dec. 19 letter to Superintendent Merrett Stierheim, made public last week, that those assertions by the district were unsubstantiated.

District officials did not return calls for comment, but Mr. Stierheim told the Miami Herald that the oversight board does not understand how government projects are financed.

—Joetta L. Sack

N.Y.C. Chancellor Issues 'Report Cards' on Principals

Continuing his pledge to hold school leaders more accountable, Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein of New York City is sending out performance evaluations on the system's principals.

Mr. Klein has said community superintendents in the city should use the reports, which include data on test-score gains and attendance, in principals' job reviews. System leaders expect to finish handing out all of the reports in the next few weeks.

The "report cards," as some educators are calling them, have sparked heated criticism from the union representing school administrators in the 1.1 million-student system. Richard Relkin, a spokesman for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, said the reports fail to reflect the varying challenges that different schools face.

—Jeff Archer

Mo. School Board Member Seeks Field-Trip Dress Code

A school district in Missouri is continuing to contend with controversy after a father chaperoned a field trip dressed as a woman.

Lisa Naeger, a school board member in the 18,600-student Francis Howell district in St. Charles, said last week that she wants to institute a policy forcing parent chaperons to wear "gender appropriate" clothing at school gatherings.

The district has been coping with parent complaints since October, when a 4th grader's father who attended a field trip to the state Capitol in Jefferson City wore makeup, women's jeans, and a sweater.

Ms. Naeger, who has drafted a proposed policy, said she doubts her fellow board members will support it. And even if she prevails this month, there is little chance that the new policy would pass legal muster: A St. Louis city ordinance that prohibits anyone from wearing clothes "not according to his or her sex" publicly was struck down in federal court in 1985.

A parent noticed the transgender father on the field trip. It was unclear, however, whether the Castlio Elementary School students realized that the "woman" was really a classmate's father.

The district has not identified the father, but officials said in the past he has attended school events dressed in women's clothes.

—Hattie Brown

Vol. 22, Issue 18, Page 4

Published in Print: January 15, 2003, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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