ACLU sues Florida district over low graduation rates
Low graduation rates in Palm Beach County show the school district has failed its students, especially minority children, by not providing a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality education," according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The lawsuit addresses a topic never before challenged in the courts. The ACLU and other organizations have sued school districts for not distributing resources equally, but no group has pursued legal action for dismal graduation rates. We're really making a more basic point," said Chris Hansen, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU. "Graduating from high school is virtually the minimum requirement for success. A large percentage of the students are being essentially written off." The suit alleges that the district is violating students' rights to a high-quality education as outlined in the state constitution.
According to state calculations, 71.8% of students across the county graduated on time last school year, up from 66% in 2003 but slightly below the state average. The rate is higher than five of the other six largest "urban" school districts in the state, including Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Only Hillsborough County, at 79.1%, had a higher rate. But the graduation rates drop off among the county's black and Hispanic students. While more than 80% of white students graduated on time in the county last year, only about 55% of black students and 64% of Hispanic kids did, according to state statistics. ACLU officials question the methods used to determine rates, including the addition of students who are pursuing a GED instead of a traditional diploma.
Different formulas cited in the suit, including one created by University of South Florida Professor Sherman Dorn that corrects for the GED students, put the county's graduation rate in recent years at less than 60%. The suit calls for the school district to improve the graduation rates among students in every racial group, students who qualify for the school lunch program and English-language learners. It also calls for the school district to adopt a more-accurate method for calculating graduation rates. It was filed on behalf of about a dozen Palm Beach County students and their parents and is meant to aid students of all backgrounds, said Muslima Lewis, director of the ACLU of Florida's Racial Justice Project. Hansen said the organization intentionally left out specific remedies to allow school district officials to do what they think is best to improve achievement. "I would hope the county would look at this as a positive instead of a negative," he said. "What a lawsuit can do is help focus attention and resources."
Palm Beach County School District Superintendent Art Johnson would not comment on the lawsuit but said he is "absolutely not" content with the graduation rate as long as there are students failing. "You have many students who have very challenging beginnings and the impact of society on them outside of school is enormous," Johnson said. "But, clearly, that can't be an excuse. We don't make any excuses. We know that's part of our job and we accept it." School district officials had known of an impending suit since the ACLU began holding community meetings more than a year ago to find plaintiffs. The school board voted last month to hire outside attorneys to assist the district in preparing for the suit. At the time, school board Chairman Bill Graham called the possible suit "totally misdirected" and "misguided," arguing that most policies that hurt graduation rates come from Tallahassee lawmakers, not the school board.
Source: Palm Beach Post, 3/19/08, By Don Jordan & Christina DeNardo
Editor's Note: The ACLU press release on the suit is below and includes a link to the legal complaint. The complaint, which requests class action status, invokes "a 1998 Amendment to the Florida Constitution enacted by the people of Florida to strengthen and define the right to education in Florida." Similar constitutional provisions have been the focus of litigation in many states challenging inadequate state funding of education. Again, helpful resources below from NSBA's Center for Public Education, some brief and some detailed, address methods for both calculating graduation rates and addressing the problem.
ACLU press release
Center for Public Education on high school graduation rates
Center for Public Education on dropouts
EQUITY & DISCRIMINATION
Gay student club holds forums at Minnesota school re. court rulings
In the first of two forums, attended by more than 50 students and community members, members of a student group at Maple Grove Senior High School known as Straights and Gays for Equality (SAGE) tried to clarify their mission of drawing attention to and fighting harassment against gay, lesbian, transgendered and bisexual students. In April 2006 a federal judge ruled that the group must have to the same access to school communication tools that other student groups use, such as hall posters and the public address system. The students called the forums in response to what they termed a pattern of misinformation and complaints that they had heard from students. One rumor was that the continuing lawsuit had caused a moratorium against new student organizations. District 279 spokesman Pat Brink said that no such moratorium exists; however, the Osseo School Board has appealed each ruling in S.A.G.E.'s favor in order to reserve the right to classify student groups based upon whether or not they are related to school curriculum.
Two students, with their parents, sued the Osseo School District in October 2005, claiming that the group was due the same tools to communicate with and to advertise to the student body as other "noncurricular" groups for such activities as cheerleading and synchronized swimming. U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen ruled in the students' favor. The district's subsequent appeal was denied by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in December 2006. In September of last year, Ericksen issued a permanent injunction, saying the group must give S.A.G.E. equal access; the district again has appealed. The students noted that the group had grown from just two or three at a meeting to as many as 38 last time, many of whom are straight. And they've noticed that both students and teachers have been likelier to call others to task for homophobic comments.
Source: Minneapolis Star Tribune, 3/19/08, By Maria Elena Baca
Editor's Note: The September 2007 ruling is summarized below. The suit was brought under the federal Equal Access Act, which requires a school to grant equal access to all student noncurriculum related organizations if it recognizes any.
NSBA School Law pages on SAGE v. Osseo Area Sch. Dist. No. 279
Georgia county drops plans for single-sex schools
Greene County school officials have scrapped a controversial plan to become the country's first school district entirely separated by gender. But county schools may still wind up with some single-gender classes. The plan, approved by the school board last month, sparked heated public forums. Hundreds of parents blasted Superintendent Shawn McCollough for pushing the measure through without first consulting them. The move would have divided every school by gender, which one expert has called illegal. Now that plan has been abandoned. School board member Velicia Cobb says the district administration is polling the preferences of parents, teachers and staff members at the county's five public schools. She says once those results are in, the administration will draft a new plan for the east Georgia district's 2,000 students that mirrors the majority opinion. Cobb says that could mean some of the schools will be single gender or have single gender classes and some will not.
Source: WJBF-TV, 3/26/08, By Associated Press
Editor's Note: For background on the controversy over conversion to single-sex schools, see below.
NSBA School Law pages on single-sex schools controversy
EMPLOYMENT & LABOR
School district settles teacher's race discrimination suit
Faced with a lawsuit they say they couldn't win, officials with Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) say they will no longer consider race when hiring or transferring teachers. The demise of the so-called "Singleton Ratio," which was named after a 1960s desegregation lawsuit and used in Jefferson County since the 1970s, is part of a confidential settlement between the school district and Laukhuf Elementary teacher Lorraine Hill. The teacher assignment policy had required that most JCPS schools maintain their percentages of black instructors between 7% and 22%, depending on the grade level. In September 2007, Hill filed a federal lawsuit, arguing that the district's policy had unconstitutionally denied her interviews and a transfer to Cane Run or Wellington elementary schools, which already had too many black teachers. The lawsuit was dismissed last week in Louisville's U.S. District Court as part of the settlement.
Teddy Gordon, Hill's lawyer, who would not discuss the case yesterday, has said the district's policy was continuing to "discriminate, especially against African Americans." Some educators fear that the change could lead to an eventual "segregation of teachers" in some schools, said Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County Teachers Association, who argues that the former policy improved learning and provided key role models for all students. Others said they were uncertain of the fallout. "I'm concerned," said school board member Linda Duncan. "But I don't anticipate a big number wanting to transfer," at least not immediately, she said. District officials say they'll keep working hard to recruit minority teachers, and they recently urged principals to make teacher diversity a priority. But there will no longer be any districtwide rule to enforce it. Eckels said the policy's loss was "very bad for the district."
The Singleton Ratio—part of court-ordered desegregation that the district had voluntarily continued—required that the percentage of black teachers within a school remain within 5 percentage points of the elementary, middle or high school averages. Officials defended the policy as a crucial way to spread out the benefits of diverse faculties. Teacher union officials said that complaints were rare, but did occasionally flare up when teachers were barred from transferring as a result of the policy. The union supported the policy, and it was part of its contract. But with the lawsuit pending, the union and the district sought the advice of National Education Association lawyers and other experts, who said the practice likely would not hold up in court, Eckels and McKim said. Although a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling only addressed the use of race in assigning students, not teachers, NEA lawyers said that the policy would likely face a losing battle. "There are still arguments to be made that a Singleton-type plan would pass muster, but it's whether you want to spend the time and money fighting it," said Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel for the NEA. The NEA also said the union could even be liable for damages, McKim said. Eckels said there are no plans to find alternative ways to disperse black teachers.
Source: Louisville Courier-Journal, 3/26/08, By Chris Kenning
Editor's Note: For background on this suit and on how the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in PICS v. Seattle School District No. 1 has played out in Jefferson County, as well as resources for school officials on diversity efforts, see below.
NSBA School Law pages on filing of lawsuit
NSBA School Law pages on Louisville student assignments
Supreme Court to review ban on payroll deductions for union politicking
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to review an Idaho state law that bars school districts and other local government agencies from making deductions from union members' paychecks for the unions' political activities. The court has granted the state's request for review in Ysursa v. Pocatello Education Association (No. 07-869), in which the state is defending the federal constitutionality of its Voluntary Contributions Act. The law, passed in 2003, was backed in Idaho and in other states by "right to work" forces. The law was challenged by the Idaho Education Association, its Pocatello local affiliate, and other public-employee unions in the state. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the provision as applied to local government employers violates the First Amendment free-speech rights of the unions. In its appeal to the Supreme Court, Idaho said the 9th Circuit court "has made a striking and unprecedented incursion into the authority of state legislatures to control the employment practices of political subdivisions." The Idaho Education Association and the other public-employee unions called on the high court to reject Utah's petition, noting that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, had recently made a similar ruling in striking down Utah's version of the Voluntary Contributions Act, and thus no conflict existed among the federal courts of appeals on the issue. But in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in support of Idaho's appeal, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation and other groups said the 9th and 10th Circuit rulings conflicted with a 1998 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, that upheld an Ohio law that is similar to the Voluntary Contributions Act. The justices will hear arguments in the Idaho case sometime during their next term, which begins in October.
Source: Education Week, 3/31/08, By Marl Walsh
Editor's Note: Legal Clips summaries of both the Ninth Circuit and the Tenth Circuit decisions are below.
NSBA School Law pages on Pocatello Educ. Ass'n v. Heideman
NSBA School Law pages on Utah Educ. Assoc. v. Shurtleff
Second Circuit: NY principal's remarks to newspaper not protected speech
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (CT, NY, VT) has ruled that comments made by high school interim principal in a newspaper interview did not constitute speech on a matter of public concern. The ruling affirms a lower court's denial of the principal's motion for a preliminary injunction ordering the New York City Department of Education (NYCDE) not to select a permanent principal until it gives her application "full and fair" consideration. When NYCDE announced a new high school, Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), offering classes in Arab language and culture, Debbie Almontaser, who was key to the development of the program, was named interim principal. Some groups accused KGIA and Ms. Almontaser of being affiliated with radical Islam. One such group issued a press release claiming that she was connected to T-shirts containing the caption "Intifada NYC" that were allegedly being sold by an organization known as Arab Women Active in the Arts and Media (AWAAM). Although the evidence indicated that she was not affiliated with AWAAM, a New York Post reporter sought to interview her about the T-shirts and the organization. Eventually, Ms. Almontaser was instructed by NYCDE's press office to submit to the interview but to avoid addressing the T-shirts. During a phone interview, with a press officer on the line, she denied any connections to AWAAM Ms. Almontaser accurately explained that the root of the word "intifada" means "shaking off," acknowledged that the word has been associated with violence, and emphasized that she would never affiliate herself with an organization that condones violence. The press officer interjected only once during the call to emphasize that Ms. Almontaser does not believe in violence and commended her immediately after the interview. However, the Post article the next day created the impression she was defending the T-shirts and inaccurately reported her definition of intifada. The Post and other media subsequently published stories and letters to the editor characterizing the statements attributed to Ms. Almontaser as a defense of violence against Israel. Under pressure, she issued an apology drafted by NYCDE officials and resigned from her position. After her application for the position of permanent principal was rejected, she sued in federal court, alleging retaliation in violation of her First Amendment free speech rights and her Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. The district court ruled against her.
The Second Circuit began by noting that because NYCDE already had appointed another permanent principal at KGIA, Ms. Almontaser was seeking a preliminary injunction to change the status quo, rather than to maintain it. As a result, she had to "meet the more rigorous standard of demonstrating a 'clear' or 'substantial' showing of a likelihood of success on the merits." Whether the district court had abused its discretion in denying Ms. Almontaser's motion rested on whether the court's decision was based on a clearly erroneous finding of fact or an error of law. While acknowledging that a public employee has a First Amendment right to speak as a citizen on a matter of public concern, the appeals court emphasized that the U.S. Supreme Court in Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006), had clearly established that "when public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline." Based on the record, the court concluded that the lower court had not abused its discretion because Ms. Almontaser's statements "'were manifestly made in her official capacity' and therefore not constitutionally protected." In addition, although her explanation of intifada fell outside the topics on which she was directed to speak, it too was made pursuant to role as principal. Having so ruled, the Second Circuit declined to address the district court's alternative holding that even if Ms. Almontaser's speech were protected, NYCDE was justified in rejected her application under the balancing test used to determine constitutional limitations on public employees' speech set forth in Pickering v. Bd. of Educ. of Twp. High Sch. Dist. 205, 391 U.S. 563 (1968). The court also declined to address whether a public employee who is required by her employer to speak to the press as a condition of her employment may be sanctioned when her statement is, as her employer knows, inaccurately reported and then misconstrued by the press. This issue, the court found, would be "best addressed in the first instance by the district court."
Almontaser v. New York City Dep't of Educ., No. 07-5468 (2d Cir. Mar. 20, 2008)
Editor's Note: For background on district court ruling and on Garcetti, see below.
NSBA School Law pages on Almontaser v. New York City Dep't of Educ.
Fourth Circuit to rule whether linking to a website opens a forum
Is a local school district that includes links on its Web site to promote positions it agrees with also obligated to link to Web sites that offer an opposing view? That's the question before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in a Columbia, S.C., lawsuit that seeks to set the proper balance in the Internet age between individual freedom of speech and government's ability to limit political discourse. Randy Page, head of South Carolinians for Responsible Government, is asking the court to grant him the right to use Columbia's Lexington 1 school district's communications system to promote taxpayer-funded home or private schooling. Page is appealing a federal district court's ruling last July that found Lexington 1 officials were within their rights when they refused to let him use the district's Web site, e-mail lists and other computer technology to push for school choice. The school district argues that it is not required to provide Internet links to Page's group—or, more broadly, to any outside organization with viewpoints or political goals that clash with its own priorities. The Supreme Court and lower courts have long recognized as "government speech" the right of public officials and agencies to communicate a particular position without requiring an opposing perspective in every instance. But the rapid Internet expansion raises the question of whether governments can link to the Web sites of groups with which it agrees without also including links to groups that offer an alternative position.
David Duff, who represented Lexington 1 before the three-judge 4th Circuit panel during arguments, said a ruling requiring that Page's links be posted could dampen government agencies' willingness to make use of the Internet for fear of being forced to include opposing perspectives. The three-judge panel appeared to side with the school district during the hearing. Chief Judge Karen Hall said a hyper-link on the government Web site makes the link government speech. But Kevin Hall, Page's attorney, argued that the link wasn't government speech, but the "government broadcasting private speech." Lexington 1 officials committed "viewpoint discrimination" against Page, Hall said, by linking their Web site to outside groups opposed to new school-choice options, but refusing to link to his group's site. Fourth Circuit Judge Paul Niemeyer said Lexington 1 hadn't created a public forum open to everyone by linking to sites that opposed a bill that would provide state funding to private schools. "They (Lexington 1 officials) did not invite opposition, and they didn't want opposition, any more than the president of the United States wants opposition when he gives a speech supporting a certain policy," Niemeyer said.
Niemeyer, though, expressed concern that Lexington 1 officials may have undercut its position by adding a disclaimer saying that opinions expressed at sites it linked to didn't represent official school district positions. Judges also questioned the decision by Mary Beth Hill, the Lexington 1 manager who oversaw its Web site, to link to the Web site of Choose Children First when it was actively opposing the school-choice bill—but then to remove the link after the group became more involved with other issues. Judges asked whether that kind of Internet management wasn't more akin to refereeing a public debate than expressing a defined point of view. "The question we're faced with is: Did (Lexington 1), wittingly or unwittingly, create a forum to which it would have to invite anyone?" Niemeyer said. Duff rejected that notion. "Yes, a Web site hyper-link can change—and, in fact, in this case did change," he said. "That's no different than if the government cites a hard-copy pamphlet, and later the writer changes the pamphlet."
Source: McClatchy Newspapers, 3/24/08, By James Rosen
Editor's Note: The lower court decision on appeal to the Fourth Circuit (MD, NC, SC, VA, WV) is summarized below. NSBA, joined by the American Association of School Administrators, the National League of Cities, the National Parent Teacher Association, the National School Public Relations Association, and the state school boards associations of South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, submitted an amicus brief, also below, in support of the school district. The brief, written pro bono by Helen L. Norton, associate professor at the University of Colorado School of Law, argued three main points: (1) The government speech doctrine protects a school board's use of public resources to communicate its own views on contested education-related legislation to the public; (2) A school district's inclusion in its public communications of third-party materials that support its position on proposed legislation or other policy issues does not convert the board's expression into a forum for private speech; and (3) the First Amendment poses no bar to school boards' communication of their views on contested education-related legislation to the public, nor does it strip schools of the authority to limit access to their communication channels in order to ensure that such networks work effectively in support of schools' educational mission. Voucher politics and legal niceties aside, in the 21st Century the notion that linking to an outside website either exposes a public entity to demands by other groups to have their sites linked or entails an ongoing obligation to monitor every such website would come as a shock to webmasters.
NSBA School Law pages on Page v. Lexington County Sch. Dist. One
NSBA et al. brief
Gossip website raises concerns at Washington high school
A website that invites people to anonymously post gossip about each other is creating problems at Marysville-Pilchuck High School. In the past week, students have used the site to bully, post compromising photos, and spread rumors about other kids' supposed sexual experiences, abortions, eating disorders, diseases and drug use. At least two students who have been the subject of the gossip mill are afraid to go to school. Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller has personally talked with parents of five students about the site. "I was horrified by what I saw," Miller said. "This is outrageous." Marysville School District posted a letter on its website alerting parents.
"We've given people a forum to say what they want to say," said Elizabeth Bloch, a founder of the company that runs the website. "It's not up for us to censor them. If a user thinks some piece of information—however nasty or ... embarrassing—is true, that's their prerogative to let the world know about it." Their site has no legal or ethical responsibility to protect kids by censoring gossip, said Bloch. The site also is about teaching responsibility, Bloch said. If enough users complain about a piece of gossip and label it "BS" or "not gossip," it will eventually be taken down, she said.
The district will take disciplinary action against any student who it can prove puts something on the Web that hurts another student, Miller said. 'If we could find out who, we would take action," she said. "It is part of bullying, harassment and intimidation. We can take action on that and we will." Tracking down students who can use pseudonyms to put gossip online is "almost impossible," said Ken Ainsworth, the school district's technology director. The district has blocked the Web site from district computers, but most of the entries are made outside of school hours. School district officials urged parents to check up on their students' computer usage to make sure they aren't posting something that will hurt others. Police would investigate if death threats were posted or if students complained about cyber-bullying, Marysville police Cmdr. Ralph Krusey said. Despite its questionable content, the site is probably legally protected, said Michele Earl-Hubbard, media law attorney at Allied Law Group in Seattle. Even if someone were physically harmed as a result of something posted on the site, the company probably wouldn't be legally liable, she said.
Source: Everett Herald, 3/21/08, By Kaitlin Manry
Editor's Note: The school district's letter is below, as is more information on cyberbullying and legal questions about a school's authority to address it.
Marysville School District letter to parents
NSBA Leadership Insider on Bullying
NSBA School Law Pages on cyberbullying laws
STUDENT RIGHTS & DISCIPLINE
Texas district adopts mandatory drug testing for all extracurriculars
A new random student drug-testing program in Lewisville ISD that kicks off the week of April 14 will be one of the widest-reaching and strictest in the state. Most North Texas school districts don't test students for drugs. Lewisville ISD leaders say their mandatory effort is meant not to punish students but to provide a credible reason to buck peer pressure. District officials estimate that 65-75% of Lewisville ISD high school students participate in extracurricular activities. "This is a societal problem," school board president Fred Placke said. "We're just trying to do our part to give our kids a chance." Almost half of Lewisville students surveyed last spring reported that drug and alcohol use at their school is a problem. A task force of parents, students and administrators hammered out a testing plan that the school board approved in December. Trustees approved spending $437,787, which includes the cost of drug testing and additional money for counseling and support programs. The program has been met with heated dissent from some parents, who charge that they didn't know much about the effort and questioned whether drug testing is the right path. Regina Bennett, the district's coordinator of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program, said there was a concerted effort to inform parents, including the months-long task force, two workshops, and a school board meeting where the program was presented and voted on.
Source: Dallas Morning News, 3/20/08, By Laurie Fox
Editor's Note: For information on another such program, see below.
NSBA School Law Pages on drug testing in Washington district
Maryland principal bans Confederate flags amid racial tensions
A Cumberland high school principal's recent decision to ban wearing or displaying the Confederate flag has inflamed an already tense debate over racial sensitivity and freedom of speech. Deana Bryant allowed her 16-year-old son to wear a shirt emblazoned with the flag to school one day last week in open defiance of the ban. Bryant said the flag is not about racism. "It's his heritage," she said. The same day, Lakeal Ellis, a nurse, kept her three daughters home from Fort Hill High School. The African American family came here a little more than a year ago from the District of Columbia hoping to find better schools and a quieter life. But after enduring racial slurs and harassment, sometimes at the hands of youths with Confederate flags, the Ellis family decided to return to the District. At Fort Hill, the racial taunts had been going on throughout the school year, but the problems boiled over after a boy made racist remarks to one of Ellis's daughters in the cafeteria line this month. Her daughter and the boy were suspended after an argument. In response, some students started displaying the flag on their clothes and trucks in solidarity with the boy. The principal banned the display of the flag, but tensions continued to rise.
"The flag turned into a weapon," said Allegany County Superintendent Bill AuMiller, who met last week with parents and students who supported wearing the flag. "They have a First Amendment right to wear it," AuMiller said, but using it to harass and intimidate students "crossed the line." He has asked students who display the flag "to voluntarily refrain until things cool down." Flag fans often speak of their banner as a reminder of local history, a symbol of rebellion against authority and political correctness, and pride in their rural lifestyle. But one man's symbol of pride is another man's symbol of terror, said Charles Woods, an African American leader in Cumberland. Carl O. Snowden, civil rights director for the state attorney general's office, has received a complaint from the state and local NAACP and the Ellis family. He said he is closely monitoring the situation in Allegany County. "This is a time when leadership is very important," he said. AuMiller said the school system will hold sensitivity training and cultural-awareness programs for middle and high schools. The Rev. Alfred Deas Jr. of Cumberland's historic Metropolitan AME church said he and other church leaders are also pressing for a community-wide dialogue.
Source: Washington Post, 3/22/08, By Mary Otto
Editor's Note: For one recent example of a court decision upholding school restrictions in a similar situation, see below.
NSBA School Law pages on B.W.A. v. Farmington R-7 Sch. Dist.
Proposed Iowa law: More frequent school board elections but longer terms
Iowans unhappy with their school board could sweep out a majority of the members under a bill passed by the Iowa Senate. School board elections would take place every other year instead of every year. And the term of office would be lengthened from three years to four years. The idea is to save $1 million a year by holding elections less frequently, according to officials in the state Secretary of State's office. But some school board officials say they can't stand the proposal. It would mean, for example, that a seven-member school board would see four members up for election at the same time. It would give Iowans who are disgruntled about a single issue such as a building closure or district reorganization the ability to take over a board—a disruption that can leave school district in disarray, some lobbyists and lawmakers said. Marshalltown is one district that saw a serious shift in its board, and it took four years for the district to recover, said Mary Gannon of the Iowa Association of School Boards (IASB). A study by former Iowa State University professor Tom Alsbury showed that politically motivated turnover in a school board has negative results on student achievement, Gannon said. It affects leadership and long-term planning, and in some cases, the superintendent ends up leaving, she said. A survey of 49 states by the Iowa secretary of state's office showed that in 41 states, school board members serve for either four, five or six years.
Source: Des Moines Register, 3/18/08, By Jennifer Jacobs
Editor's Note: IASB has spearheaded research called the Iowa Lighthouse Project that isolates out the characteristics of effective school boards. Information on a 2008 research symposium hosted by IASB on the same topic is at the first two links below. Information on the Lighthouse Project, along with other resources on effective governance and a brochure for voters explaining the importance of school board elections and suggesting questions worth considering when evaluating candidates, is at the third link.
BoardBuzz on research symposium
IASB info on forthcoming book
Center for Public Education "All in Favor" page
Parents sue over Virginia board's decision to redraw attendance zones
A parent group from western Fairfax County announced that it is seeking a legal order to reverse a School Board decision to reroute thousands of students among five high schools in coming years. The lawsuit alleges that the board action was "arbitrary and capricious" because, among other reasons, members violated board policies when they decided which neighborhoods would be subject to attendance-zone changes and because they did not sufficiently analyze impacts on transportation or costs. The suit also alleges that the board exceeded its authority when it sought to balance socioeconomic characteristics in the schools. The suit lays out facts "ignored or not taken into account" by the board, said Steven David Stone, an attorney for 11 parents from various neighborhoods affected by the new zones. The suit challenges not only the way board members made their decision "but whether they have the power to do it," he said. Stone said he is not aware of a recent legal precedent for overturning a school boundary change in Fairfax. Parents hope to have a court hearing before the new boundaries take effect in the fall. About 100 people have donated money to support the litigation so far, according to Nick Pesce, president of a group of parents opposed to the boundary changes.
Source: Washington Post, 4/1/08, By Michael Alison Chandler
Michigan districts look to pool employee health benefits, other costs
Washtenaw County school districts will look into combining forces to save money on employee benefits, including health care. The 10 districts and the Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) plan to hire a consultant within the next month to help guide them through the evaluation process. The consultant will help the districts look at the opportunities under a new state law, passed in October, that offers the framework for setting up insurance pools. But there could be many roadblocks to a countywide pooling of health care benefits for district employees, including contract with unions and with insurance companies. However, some districts could start seeing savings in areas like long-term disability benefits and life insurance in the next fiscal year, said Brian Marcel, the WISD's assistant superintendent of business services, following a meeting of representatives from all the county districts. No district has yet made any commitments to changes.
The effort is part of local districts' broader exploration of consolidating services in order to save money. Districts have faced tough financial times in recent years, due in part to rising health care costs. Marcel pointed out exploration doesn't mean all districts have to come together in one pool. "It may be smaller groups of districts joining together instead of the entire county," he said. The district representatives were briefed on the new state law by Kevin Harty, a lawyer with the Thrun Law Firm. The question before the districts is simple, he said. "Can we maintain the same level of benefits at a lower cost? Looking at it objectively, with a large group of employees, you should have some economies of scale." He told them that anything they do would be subject to collective bargaining with the various employee unions. Glenn Nelson, the vice president of the Washtenaw Association of School Boards and a trustee on the Ann Arbor school board, said the issue deserves exploring. The districts are also looking at combining special education busing from the county's districts to centers located mostly in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. They have formed a new purchasing consortium and have bought bus parts under it, and substitute teaching services were consolidated and privatized starting with this school year. The districts also looked at legal services, but didn't find any savings there, Marcel said.
Source: Ann Arbor News, 3/14/08, By David Jesse
FERPA, PRIVACY & SAFETY
The Department of Education (ED) has issued proposed regulations addressing a range of issues under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), the primary federal law governing privacy of student records in schools that receive federal funds. In the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech, concerns arose, discussed at the second link below, about real or perceived privacy law obstacles to the sharing of student information of potential import for safety considerations. The proposed regulations would re-emphasize existing exceptions where safety is at stake but also would remove language that currently requires that these exceptions be construed narrowly. Instead, new language would provide that a school may "take into account the totality of the circumstances and establish a "safe harbor" whereby if the school "determines that there is an articulable and significant threat to the health and safety of a student or [others], it may disclose information from education records to any person whose knowledge is necessary" to protect these individuals, and, "If, based on the information available at the time of the determination, there is a rational basis for the determination, [ED] will not substitute its judgment for that of the [school].
Among other things, the regulations also would (1) codify the rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in Owasso Indep. Sch. Dist. No. I-011 v. Falvo, 534 U.S. 426 (2002) and Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273 (2002); (2) implement statutory changes to FERPA made under the USA PATRIOT and Campus Sex Crimes Prevention Acts; (3) update the regulations to address distance learning; (4) restrict disclosure of student social security numbers; (5) clarify requirements as to alumni records; (6) clarify that school districts need not interpret restrictions on disclosures to contractors, auditors, or organizations conducting studies on behalf of the district as strictly as some have; (7) provide additional guidance as to when school officials have a "legitimate educational interest" in access to student records such that consent for access to the records is not required; and (8) provide guidance on de-identification, or redaction of private information from records so that they may be disclosed. Comments are due May 8, 2008. The rules, reactions to the proposals, and their implications for the K-12 and higher education worlds, respectively, are discussed in the reports below by Education Week and the New York Times.
73 Fed. Reg. 15573 (Mar. 24, 2008)
ED proposed regulations
NSBA School Law pages on FERPA and Virginia Tech shootings
Education Week, 3/1/08, By Alyson Klein
Source: New York Times, 3/25/08, By Tamar Lewin