News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Construction Debt Rises For Districts, Report Says

Public school districts in the United States spent $36 billion on school construction in 2001, according to a report released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. That amount represented a 13 percent increase over the previous year.

Districts were $201.6 billion in debt, also up 13 percent, the report says. California, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania each borrowed more than $2 billion for school construction, renovation, and refinancing in 2001, according to the report.

The highest-spending districts per student, in terms of operating expenses, were located in New York state ($10,922) and New Jersey ($10,893), followed by the District of Columbia ($10,852), Connecticut ($9,236), and Alaska ($9,165). The national average spending per pupil for the 2000-01 school year was $7,284.

—Ann Bradley

Md. County Errs in Test Of Special-Needs Students

School officials in Baltimore County, Md., have apologized for ignoring the state's directions to read standardized-test questions to students with special needs.

Despite several state workshops and letters requiring reading help for students with special needs, the Baltimore County district sent out a memo on Feb. 24 forbidding teachers to read anything but the directions for the reading portion of the Maryland School Assessment, which was taken during the first week of March.

Officials feared the test results would not be valid if they read the questions to students, because one of the purposes of the test is to assess a student's ability to read, said Douglas Neilson, a spokesman for the 107,400-student district, which does not include the city of Baltimore.

Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state department of education, said state education officials have no plans to discipline Baltimore County, which was the only Maryland district to make the mistake.

—Hattie Brown

ACLU, Texas District Settle Suit Over Gay-Straight Alliance

The American Civil Liberties Union has settled a federal lawsuit against a Texas district over the establishment of a gay-straight alliance.

Under the settlement, announced on March 5, the 33,000-student Klein Independent School District northwest of Houston will allow such a student-led group to begin meeting immediately at Klein High School.

The ACLU lawsuit argued that such clubs are permitted under the First Amendment and the federal Equal Access Act, and it accused the district of delaying its response to a request by students to form the club.

The agreement says students who wish to join the club must secure their parents' permission, according to a policy crafted last fall for all district clubs, said Liz Johnson, the assistant superintendent for community relations.

In addition, in their discussions, club members must follow the guidelines for the sex education part of Texas' health curriculum, which Ms. Johnson described as conservative. That provision, she said, will help club members adhere to the GSA's stated goal of furthering tolerance.

—Ann Bradley

Judge OKs Seattle Schools' Ban On Native American Names

The Seattle school district's policy barring the use of Native American and Alaska Native mascots and nicknames was upheld last week by a King County Superior Court judge.

Judge James Doerty sided with the 47,000-student system, which last year had put in place guidelines forbidding the potentially objectionable tribal references. That policy effectively prohibited West Seattle High School from using its "Indians" mascot and nickname, which had long stirred controversy among students.

The district's policy was challenged in court by the West Seattle High School Alumni Association, which claimed it violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In his March 10 ruling, Judge Doerty denied the alumni organization's appeal. He ruled that the 14th Amendment applied to individuals, and not mascots and symbols.

Robert M. Zoffel, a lawyer for the alumni association, said he was not sure if the group would appeal.

—Sean Cavanagh

DeKalb County Speaker Ordered To Take Diversity Training

The DeKalb County, Ga., school system, which has been feeling the heat over remarks allegedly made by former National Football League player Danny Buggs, has again ordered him to take diversity classes.

Mr. Buggs, who has been employed as a motivational speaker for the district since 1982, was reprimanded last September after he allegedly made several derogatory remarks about gay people before an all-male assembly at the 1,500-student Stone Mountain High School.

The former Washington Redskins wide receiver was suspended without pay for three days, ordered to take diversity training, and placed under direct supervision for the first time in his career with the district, said Mary Stimmel, a spokeswoman for the 93,000-student district. Mr. Buggs is now required to report to the district's head of management and information systems.

As a result of the incident, the DeKalb County school board decided to expand its anti-harassment policy to include harassment based on sexual orientation.

When Mr. Buggs appeared as a private citizen at a March 3 meeting to express his disagreement with the proposed policy, however, district officials became aware that he had not taken the required training.

Mr. Buggs has now completed about half the required diversity courses, which include a professional-development course on sexual harassment.He was unavailable for comment.

—Marianne D. Hurst

Los Angeles School Board Gets Two New Members

A recent election of members to the Los Angeles school board could deliver a stronger voice to the local teachers' union.

Depending on the results of two still-undecided seats, the seven-member board might include a majority of members backed by the United Teachers Los Angeles, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Three of the four members up for re-election on March 4 had the support of a coalition financed by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan and philanthropist Eli Broad. Discontented with the pace of improvement in the Los Angeles Unified district, the two formed the Coalition For Kids in 1999.

One of the coalition-backed incumbents, Mike Lansing, won re-election. But two others, Genethia Hudley-Hayes and Caprice Young, were ousted by union- backed candidates Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte and Jon Lauritzen.

The futures of two union allies on the board are up in the air.

As of late last week, the votes in David Tokofsky's race were still being tallied. He could face a runoff against a coalition-backed candidate in May. Julie Korenstein did not face re-election this year, but might leave the board if she wins a runoff race for city council in May.

—Catherine Gewertz

East Cleveland Schools Declared in Emergency

Ohio's state auditor declared last week that the East Cleveland school district was in a state of "fiscal emergency." The designation permits the school system to request emergency funds from the state and triggers the creation of a state commission to resolve the crisis.

Betty Montgomery, the Ohio auditor, made the announcement after finding that the 5,350-student district was expected to end the current fiscal year in June with a $7.7 million deficit, according to a written statement from her office. The district's budget is $55 million.

Superintendent Elvin R. Jones said the district would request $7.7 million in aid from the state to keep the system operating through the end of the year. The district reached its current state of crisis in part because of declining enrollment and in part because of a larger number of delinquent property-tax bills, he said.

The state commission is charged with coming up with a financial plan that balances the district's budget, requires the East Cleveland school board to project monthly levels of expenditures that match the recovery plan, and helps prevent future deficits.

—Mary Ann Zehr

Vol. 22, Issue 27, Page 4

Published in Print: March 19, 2003, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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