News in Brief: A National Roundup

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Justice Dept. Intervenes In School Headscarf Case

The U.S. Department of Justice has intervened in a case alleging religious discrimination by the Muskogee, Okla., district against a Muslim girl who wore a head covering in school.

School officials expelled 6th grader Nashala Hearn from Benjamin Franklin Science Academy last fall after she refused to remove a headscarf worn for religious reasons.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said last week that the agency has filed a complaint alleging that the school district violated the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Officials would not discuss why the department decided to become involved in the case, but federal officials have requested that the U.S. District Court in Muskogee invalidate the dress code and make the district revise the policy.

Eldon Gleichman, the superintendent of the 6,300-student district, said last fall that Nashala’s garb violated the school’s dress code, which prohibits students from wearing any type of headgear, including caps, hats, and scarves.

The Rutherford Institute, a legal-advocacy group based in Charlottesville, Va., filed a federal lawsuit against the district last October, arguing that the dress code violated the girl’s right to free speech, expression, and exercise of religion.

School officials were unavailable for comment.

—Marianne D. Hurst

District of Columbia Board Names Interim Superintendent

A veteran superintendent will lead the District of Columbia’s public schools on an interim basis while the school board searches for a permanent replacement this summer.

Robert C. Rice, 65, a former senior vice president and chief operating officer for the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, is currently serving as the 65,000-student district’s acting chief academic officer and assistant superintendent for standards and curriculum.

The nine- member school board voted 5-1 to approve Mr. Rice’s selection during an April 1 meeting. His salary was not discussed.

Last week’s announcement marked the second attempt by the school board in the nation’s capital to appoint an interim schools chief. The board had been poised to appoint James H. Shelton, the program director for education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but Mr. Shelton pulled his application last month. ("District of Columbia Schools Facing Leadership Dilemma," March 31, 2004.)

A national search is under way to select a permanent schools chief by July.

Mr. Rice replaces Elfreda W. Massie, who announced her resignation as interim superintendent in February.

—Karla Scoon Reid

Mass. District Board Backs Officials Indicted in Bid Probe

The school board of the Everett, Mass., district gave a vote of confidence last week to its superintendent and another top district official after both individuals were indicted on charges stemming from a bid-rigging probe.

All eight members of the school committee agreed on March 31 not to suspend either Superintendent Frederick F. Foresteire or Lona T. DeFeo, a district administrator who handles maintenance contracts.

Prosecutors have alleged that Ms. DeFeo took part in a series of schemes in which the district awarded contracts to local companies without going through the proper bidding process. The district serves 5,400 students in a blue-collar community north of Boston.

A spokeswoman for the state attorney general said last week that there was no evidence that Ms. DeFeo benefited financially from the alleged scheme. Mr. Foresteire has not been implicated in the alleged bid-rigging, but prosecutors have accused him of receiving stolen property from one of the contractors.

A lawyer for Mr. Foresteire said last week that his client was unaware that any items he received might have been stolen. A lawyer for Ms. DeFeo denied the allegations against her.

Both were slated to be arraigned this week. Nine contractors also have been indicted in the case.

—Jeff Archer

Los Angeles District Adopts Anti-Sweatshop Measures

Vendors of everything from pencils to computers will have to show how their products are made before the Los Angeles Unified School District will buy them, under strict anti-sweatshop guidelines adopted by the school board.

Suppliers also must guarantee that their workers earn "nonpoverty" wages. The board unanimously adopted the new measures, which some believe to be among the nation’s toughest anti-sweatshop requirements, on March 23.

The 750,000-student district spends roughly $500 million annually on services and supplies. While the district did not set aside funds to hire a company to monitor the enforcement of the new guidelines, vendors’ disclosures will be available for public review.

Nationally, a growing number of schools teach lessons about child labor, but few school systems bar all purchases from companies with poor labor practices. ("Schools Take on Studies of Child Labor," April 16, 2003.)

—Karla Scoon Reid

N.Y.C. Teachers See Roadblock In Contract Negotiations

The New York City teachers’ union has declared a deadlock in contract negotiations with the city.

In a statement issued on March 26, United Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten accused Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of being uninterested in bargaining in good faith, and bemoaned six months of "fruitless" negotiations. The teachers’ contract expired at the end of last May.

James F. Hanley, the city labor commissioner and the leader of the city’s negotiating team, issued a statement saying the team was "ready, willing, and able to negotiate a contract with the UFT at the bargaining table," but not through the news media.

Many areas are in dispute, including how much revision will be made in work rules, such as those governing teachers’ control over where they teach and the process by which teachers can be dismissed.

The UFT said it planned to seek a declaration of impasse from state employment officials, which could lead to the appointment of a state mediator to aid in negotiations.

—Catherine Gewertz

Michigan Superintendent Charged With Embezzlement

The Michigan attorney general has charged the fired head of the Oakland County, Mich., intermediate school district with felony embezzlement and misconduct.

James Redmond, the former superintendent of the suburban Detroit district, could face up to 15 years in prison, Attorney General Mike Cox said in announcing the charges last week.

Mr. Redmond was fired in January 2003 after a probe found alleged misuses of funds, including a no-bid contract with a company to which he was closely tied.

The financial scandal led all but one of the district’s board members to resign. It has also resulted in new laws to reform the state’s 57 intermediate school districts, which provide services such as special education to local districts.

The embezzlement charge against Mr. Redmond stemmed from his demand for an upward adjustment of his severance pay, according to Mr. Cox.

Mr. Redmond’s lawyer, Mark J. Krieger, denied the allegations. "Every one of the charges is completed unfounded," Mr. Krieger said. "That will be shown in court."

—Bess Keller

California District Facing Cuts Attracts Philanthropic Dollars

A school district in Richmond, Calif., has received more than $640,000 in donations since it announced last month that it would have to cut athletic and music programs and close school libraries for the upcoming year.

The West Contra Costa Unified School District faced $16.5 million in cuts after voters defeated a "parcel tax" on March 8 that would have paid for textbooks, counselors and aides, recruitment and retention of qualified teachers, and improvements in the district’s custodial service. ("Calif. District Slashes School Sports for Fall," March 24, 2004.)

On March 30, the 35,000-student district received a $500,000 donation— $350,000 for libraries and books, and $150,000 for athletics—from the San Francisco Foundation, a local philanthropy, and $3,000 from the Bethesda, Md.—based Calvert Giving Fund.

Although the threatened loss of high school sports has garnered the most attention, the fund for books and libraries has received $373,106; athletics has received $165,614; a "parcel-tax alternate fund" has received $104,359; and music programs have received $285.

—Catherine A. Carroll

Vol. 23, Issue 30, Page 4

Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as News in Brief: A National Roundup
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