News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Gates Awards $51.2 Million To N.Y.C. for Small Schools

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation last week announced its support for a $51.2 million partnership with the New York City department of education to create 67 new, small high schools aimed primarily at serving disadvantaged students.

The grant money will flow through seven nonprofit organizations that will work within the city department, including New Visions for Public Schools, a New York-based nonprofit group that has worked on previous school projects in the city with the Gates Foundation.

Announced Sept. 17, the New York partnership is part of a $66.5 million nationwide grant effort supporting projects centered on raising high school graduation rates. So far, the foundation has awarded a total of $590 million around the country to support 1,600 schools, a majority of which are high schools, Gates officials said.

The newly announced effort in New York City is part of a larger initiative to create 200 small high schools within the 1.1 million-student district. Officials from the school system and the foundation cited research indicating that small high schools foster lower dropout rates and higher college-going rates than larger schools do.

Officials said the new partnership would focus on "high need" areas throughout the city, and would replicate existing high school models that have shown an ability to promote college readiness among minority students. The first high schools are expected to open next fall, though most of them are likely to begin serving students within the next three to five years, said Michelle McManus, a spokeswoman for the New York City education department.

—Sean Cavanagh

Edison Schools Posts Profit For First Time in Its History

Edison Schools Inc. has posted its first quarterly net income, the company announced this month.

Edison, which is the nation's largest private company offering management services for public schools, reported net income of $10.2 million for the quarter ending June 30, compared with a net loss of $48.9 million for the same period a year ago.

The net loss for the fiscal year was $25 million, the company said, compared with a net loss of $86 million for fiscal 2002.

The company, founded in 1992 by the media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle, is in the process of merging with a firm formed by Mr. Whittle and an affiliate of Liberty Partners, a private equity firm based in New York City.

The deal, which has been approved by Edison's board of directors, is expected to be completed this fall and would change Edison from a publicly traded company to a privately held one. ("Edison Likely to Become a Private Company Once Again," Aug. 6, 2003.)

—Ann Bradley

Michigan School Reopens After Cleanup of Mercury Spills

A Michigan school that was closed for four days while officials cleaned up a mercury spill reopened for classes last week.

One middle school student and seven high school students brought the mercury onto the 750-student, K-12 campus of the Onaway Area Schools on Sept. 10 and spilled the toxic substance in five different locations, according to Robert Szymoniak, the superintendent.

Students walked through some of the contaminated areas before the mercury was detected, but no mercury poisoning was reported, Mr. Szymoniak said in a news release.

The campus remained closed as a private company decontaminated the area. The students involved in the spill have been suspended, pending the outcome of a police investigation, the release said.

—Michelle Galley

Camden, N.J., Board Rejects Governor's Order on Chief

Asserting that New Jersey Gov. James E. McGreevey has overstepped his authority, Camden school board members have voted to reaffirm their negotiated contract with the district's superintendent.

The nine-member board voted 8-0 on Sept. 11 to keep the original contract with the superintendent, which was approved in June. One board member was absent.

Gov. McGreevey, a Democrat, vetoed the superintendent's contract this past summer, using authority granted to him under the Municipal Rehabilitation and Recovery Act. The 2002 state law pumps $175 million into Camden to revitalize the city. The law also restructured the school board, which now includes three members appointed by the governor.

Annette D. Knox, who became the 18,500-student district's superintendent in 2001, currently earns $160,000 a year. The new contract would potentially increase her salary to more than $200,000 by 2008.

Juliet Johnson, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Mr. McGreevey wants the superintendent's contract to show salary increases linked to improved student performance.

L. Warren Sykes, the school board president, said the governor can't dictate what is included in the superintendent's contract. He added that the board was still fighting the state's intervention in the school system in the state supreme court.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Chicago-Area District Warned To Admit Homeless Students

The Illinois attorney general's office has warned a school district in suburban Chicago not to break the law by turning away homeless students—although the superintendent has responded by saying the district already is following proper legal procedures.

The attorney general's civil rights bureau issued a letter to the Thornton Fractional School District 215 on Sept. 11 that said refusal to enroll homeless students would amount to a violation of Illinois and federal law, and possibly civil rights statutes.

The letter referred to an article in the Chicago Tribune that quoted Thornton's superintendent as saying the district had turned away 10 families since school started this year because they couldn't provide documentation showing they were homeless.

The letter urged the district to locate any of those homeless children and report the outcome of their cases to the civil rights bureau.

But Thornton Superintendent Robert K. Wilhite disputed the facts cited in the letter. Mr. Wilhite said his district initially had 10 inquiries regarding individuals seeking to enroll in the district. In only three of those cases, however, did family members for the students follow through by meeting with district officials, Mr. Wilhite said—and those students ended up being enrolled.

—Sean Cavanagh

Ga. Superintendent Cleared In Probe of Discipline Reports

A Georgia state ethics panel has cleared the superintendent of a suburban Atlanta school system, after investigators determined that he did not manipulate a state discipline report.

J. Alvin Wilbanks, who leads the 123,000-student Gwinnett County public schools, was absolved this month on an 11-0 vote, said Vicky Brantley, the director of the educator-ethics division for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

The panel looked into whether Mr. Wilbanks had changed, misrepresented, or falsified information in the 2001-02 state report, she said.

The district had failed to report 23,000 discipline incidents—some 85 percent of the total, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution and TV station WSB of Atlanta, which first broke the story. ("School Safety Reports Get a Closer Look in Ga.," June 11, 2003.)

Mr. Wilbanks contended the error was made because of a computer flaw.

"I am pleased that the PSC recognized that there was no intent on anyone's part to mislead the state or citizens of Gwinnett County," Mr. Wilbanks said in a statement.

—Julie Blair

N.H. Federation of Teachers Calls for Audit by Parent Union

Officials with the New Hampshire Federation of Teachers have called in an auditor from their national union, following the surprise resignations this month of the state affiliate's three top elected leaders.

Similar requests were made over the past 18 months by the American Federation of Teachers' affiliates in Washington and Miami-Dade County, as those unions wrestled with scandals involving the alleged theft of dues by leaders.

"We don't think there's anything of that sort here," said Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the AFT, which has sent an auditor and a regional official to examine operations at the Bow, N.H., offices of the 2,900-member state affiliate.

President Jim Rust resigned effective Sept. 3 without public comment after six years in office. Sandra Dehner and Jacqueline Faulhaber, the former secretary and treasurer of the union, respectively, quit at the same time.

Maureen M. McNeil took over as the president this month while continuing as the head of the Nashua Teachers Union.

—Bess Keller

Vol. 23, Issue 4, Page 4

Published in Print: September 24, 2003, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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