Friday, February 20, 2009

Jindal, other governors may turn down stimulus that would go towards education

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, joined by several legislators including Speaker of The House Jim Tucker, R-Terrytown, second from right, and Rep. Jane Smith, R-Bossier City, far right, exits a news conference at the State Capitol in Baton Rouge, La. on Feb. 18. Jindal is among a handful of Republican governors are considering turning down some money from the federal stimulus package, a move opponents say puts conservative ideology ahead of the needs of constituents struggling with record foreclosures and soaring unemployment.

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A handful of Republican governors are considering turning down some money from the federal stimulus package, a move opponents say puts conservative ideology ahead of the needs of constituents struggling with record foreclosures and soaring unemployment.

Though none has outright rejected the money available for education, health care and infrastructure, the governors of Texas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alaska, South Carolina and Idaho have all questioned whether the $787 billion bill signed into law this week will even help the economy.

"My concern is there's going to be commitments attached to it that are a mile long," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who considered rejecting some of the money but decided Wednesday to accept it. "We need the freedom to pick and choose. And we need the freedom to say 'No thanks.'"

U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, the No. 3 House Democrat, said the governors — some of whom are said to be eyeing White House bids in 2012 — are putting their own interests first.

"No community or constituent should be denied recovery assistance due to their governor's political ideology or political aspirations," Clyburn, from South Carolina, said Wednesday.

In fact, governors who reject some of the stimulus aid may find themselves overridden by their own legislatures because of language Clyburn included in the bill that allows state lawmakers to accept the federal money even if their governors object.

He inserted the provision based on the early and vocal opposition to the stimulus plan by South Carolina's Republican governor, Mark Sanford. But it also means governors like Sanford and Louisiana's Bobby Jindal — a Republican up-and-comer often mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate — can burnish their conservative credentials, knowing all the while that their legislatures can accept the money anyway.

Jindal said he, like Perry and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, is concerned about strings attached to the money even though his state faces a $1.7 billion budget shortfall next year.

Barbour spokesman Dan Turner, for example, cited concerns that accepting unemployment money from the stimulus package would force states to pay benefits to people who wouldn't meet state requirements to receive them.

In Idaho, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said he wasn't interested in stimulus money that would expand programs and boost the state's costs in future years when the federal dollars disappear — a worry also cited by Jindal and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, last year's Republican vice presidential nominee.

A spokesman said Sanford, the new head of the Republican Governors Association, is looking at the stimulus bill to figure out how much of it he can control.

"We're going through a 1,200-page bill to determine what our options are," Spokesman Joel Sawyer said. "From there, we'll make decisions."

But state Democratic Party chairwoman Carol Fowler says Sanford's hesitation is driven by his political ambition rather than the best interests of a state that had the nation's third-highest unemployment rate in December.

"He's so ideological," Fowler said. "He would rather South Carolina do without jobs than take that money, and I think he's looking for a way not to take it."

Not all Republican governors are reticent about using the federal cash.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist lobbied for the stimulus plan and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue has embraced it as he looks to close a $2.6 billion deficit in the state's budget this year. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley has already figured the money into his state's budget.

Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said fiscally conservative governors may be able to give themselves political cover by turning down small portions of the stimulus money, like health care dollars requiring a state match, that they might not fully use anyway.

But in the end, he said, they will likely take most of the available money because their states need it so badly.

"Ideology usually takes second place for governors," he said. "And that's going to mean that most governors are going to go ahead and take the money even though they have misgivings about it."


Associated Press writers Seanna Adcox, Mary Clare Jalonick, Shannon McCaffrey, John Miller, Emily Wagster Pettus, Phillip Rawls, Anne Sutton and Jim Vertuno contributed to this report.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

Juvenile justice system undergoing house cleaning

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Some innovation is happening in Louisiana's derided system of handling delinquent children.

Rapides and Jefferson parishes are trying to fix what's considered the key problem in the juvenile justice system: too many children, some accused of first-time, minor offenses, get hauled in front of a judge facing charges.

"We felt like those cases shouldn't be in the court system, and that the court should really be reserved for more serious offenders," said Daphne Robinson, an assistant district attorney for Rapides Parish.

Truancy was the source of 65 percent of total juvenile offenses processed in Jefferson Parish's court system in 2006, according to new data from Paul Frick, a University of New Orleans research professor. Frick also found that only 25 percent of youths in the court system in Rapides and Jefferson parishes were facing "true delinquent" charges; the rest were accused of truancy, underage drinking, curfew violations and other nonviolent offenses.

The goal is to get cases such as truancy dealt with at school, or another intermediate facility, rather than in a courtroom — though judges and prosecutors consider the offense serious, partly because it can lead to far worse.

"When you've got a kid who's on the street for eight hours, instead of being in school, the possibility is great that that child will get into some conduct that can lead to trouble," Robinson said.

Robinson is overseeing Alexandria's new "Neighborhood Accountability Board," which will essentially take the place of a judge in minor, first-offense cases. She said the panel will probably be made up of former educators and community leaders with an interest in children and improving the city and parish.

The board, meeting in a recreation center will pass judgment on children caught in first-offense violations such as breaking curfews, underage drinking, vandalism or shoplifting.

Board members will have the power to hand down creative sentences, some more educational than punitive. A young vandal might be forced to write a letter of apology to his victim. Or mow the victim's lawn every week for a few months — something like community service, but aimed at providing a service to the harmed party and maybe teaching the kid a lesson.

Robinson has said she believes diverting first-time offenders away from the court system could save the parish over $3 million per offender, if it succeeds in lowering the rate that first-offenders commit further crimes, thus reducing future prosecutions and incarcerations.

The board will get a briefing at its next meeting, on Monday, from the head of the St. Louis board it was modeled after.

The Rapides innovations, and others elsewhere in the state, are the fruits of grants from the Chicago-based Catherine D. and John T. MacArthur Foundation.

Robinson said teens' low-level crimes usually stem from troubles at home, mental illness or just plain bad parenting — problems better addressed in school or by a social worker, not a prosecutor and a judge. If those troubles can be remedied, she says a teenager has a better shot at avoiding more serious crimes.

"If everybody was a great parent, we probably wouldn't have the cases we have in Juvenile Court," Robinson said.

Truancy in particular is a problem caused by parents, said District Court Judge Patricia Koch of Alexandria.

"Some people just don't force their kids to get up and go to school. Isn't that insane? It's not just poor children, it's across the board," Koch said. "The parents just give up. They say, 'I have to leave and go to work,' and the kid doesn't go to school."

Koch and Robinson's work in Rapides is the latest sign that Louisiana is slowly cleaning up a juvenile justice system that, not long ago, was considered the nation's most violent and least effective. Those involved in the process to improve the system say the state has finally moved away from its old lock-'em-up attitude, toward one that acknowledges that the descent of children into violent crime can be prevented.

"We're learning," said Pete Adams, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney's Association. "Obviously, it comes down to money, and it's hard to change things, but we're getting there."


School boards and Pastorek fight over new school board laws

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — To Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, an overhaul of the laws governing local school boards would reform and modernize education.

Local school board members see it as a direct assault against them to consolidate power in Baton Rouge.

Pastorek wants to put term limits on board members, take away their salaries and limit their authority over school superintendents. If the state education board agrees next month, the political tug-of-war will head to the Legislature.

That will drop lawmakers into a heated dispute testing political alliances. A dozen state legislators are former school board members. Many others have close relationships with local boards.

"A lot of political careers have been launched in school boards, so I think there's going to be resistance there," Pastorek said. "I think the real question is: What's the right thing to do for children? I'm hoping that legislators will put aside their political support with local school boards and make an honest assessment."

Pastorek said he sees the proposals as important reforms. He said he looked to those he considers model states, including Texas and Kentucky, for ideas.

"We do have some real challenges with some school boards around the state, school boards who micromanage, school boards who have relatives who are in administration whose contracts get approved by school boards, people who have been around 30 to 40 years and their experience of what schools should be are far different than what is going on today," Pastorek said.

So, Pastorek suggests limiting how long school board members can serve, capping their pay to either a per diem for the days they work or to reimburse expenses, restricting family of school board members working in the same districts and reducing authority of board members in hiring and firing.

Pastorek's department will present recommendations for legislation in March to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, whose members will decide which to pursue with the Legislature. BESE member Glenny Lee Buquet of Houma said she thinks many of the proposals will be forwarded to lawmakers.

Nearly all the ideas have generated opposition.

"Paul is doing all that he can to dismantle public education as it exists now. He has indicated that he feels like school board members are a part of the problem and not a part of the solution, but it's difficult for us to understand that," said Nolton Senegal, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Rep. Joe Harrison, a former Assumption Parish school board member, said he's received numerous calls from board members complaining they've had no input. Harrison, R-Labadieville, said he has reservations about the proposals and expects many could face a tough time in the Legislature.

The ideas are the latest in a series of disagreements between Pastorek and school boards.

The education superintendent successfully fought for state takeovers of 10 failing public schools in Baton Rouge and Shreveport against the wishes of local officials. Pastorek got into a public disagreement in Monroe after he asked for an investigation into the rehiring of the schools superintendent and an attempt to put a board member's daughter in a school district job for which she wasn't qualified. State Police decided against investigating the matter.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Board President Jerry Arbour said the state should be debating more pressing education needs than Pastorek's proposals.

"I think it's a waste of the Legislature's time and effort. I think we've got other things as far as education-related matters that we need to address other than just trying to take away local control," Arbour said.

Senegal and Arbour said term limits weren't needed because voters in the state's 69 public school districts can decide whether to re-elect members every four years. Senegal said state law already caps board members' salaries at $800 per month, or $900 for board presidents. Arbour said calculations showed if board members were given per diem payments for the days they worked, it could cost taxpayers more.

Only a handful of states have statewide term limits on local school boards, and pay varies widely, according to the National School Boards Association and the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Beyond pay and tenure, Pastorek wants to change the state nepotism law that allows family of local board members who work as teachers, in some instances, to be promoted to administrative or principal jobs. Pastorek said such promotions create negative public perceptions.

Senegal said board members must inform the state ethics board if a relative works in the school system and recuse themselves from votes involving family members. He said he believes those provisions are sufficient.

The most important changes, Pastorek said, would restrict the boards' authority over their school superintendents by requiring a two-thirds vote to fire a superintendent and allowing superintendents to hire and fire staff without their approval.

"There are many school board members who dictate who the superintendent will and will not select. It's done in very subtle ways, but I hear it all the time," he said, declining to give examples.

Gov. Bobby Jindal has yet to weigh in on Pastorek's ideas, saying he would need to read specific legislation before commenting. But he expressed support for Pastorek, saying the superintendent was "doing a great job."


Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education:

Louisiana School Boards Association:

Employees at Louisiana School for the Deaf investigated for sex scandal

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — An investigation into allegations of inappropriate contact has led to a teacher and supervisor at the Louisiana School for the Deaf being placed on leave.

The alleged incidents of inappropriate touching or physical contact between the teacher and students were reported earlier this month by students during a group discussion with peers and a member of the school's staff, State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek said Wednesday.

The identities of the teacher and supervisor were withheld. Both are on paid leave pending further investigation, Pastorek said.

"Clearly, the possibility that inappropriate behavior has occurred is unfortunate, and this is a serious matter that we will treat with the greatest sense of care," he said. "But it does give me some reassurance that these incidents were reported by students. ... That tells me these students, and hopefully all of our students, expect to be treated with the respect they deserve and that they know they will be supported and protected."

The school was briefly closed last year and security revamped after accusations of rape and sexual misconduct.

The school reopened in November.

Pastorek had temporarily closed the school in October after charges that a 16-year-old student with a history of behavioral problems raped a 6-year-old student on a school bus.

It was the latest in a string of complaints about sexual misconduct at the school, which has more than 190 students from elementary school through high school on its Baton Rouge campus, many of whom live in a campus dormitory during the week.

A lawsuit recently was filed against the state and the deaf school accusing two male students of repeatedly molesting a female student. In addition, at least five people — including three current or former teachers — were arrested between November 2007 and April 2008, accused of indecent behavior with students.

While the deaf school was closed, the state added new security cameras, retrained security guards and installed an electronic-monitoring system to track dormitory staff. Monitoring on the school buses that take students home on weekends also was increased, according to education department officials.



Changes considered for Louisiana school boards

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Next month, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will consider several proposals to change state laws governing local school board operations. Recommendations emerging from the board, known as BESE, would be passed to the Legislature for possible action. Among proposals BESE will consider:

—Term limits for local school board members.

—Elimination of salaries, with either a capped per diem or reimbursement of expenses.

—Changes to the nepotism statute. Currently, family members of board members can be promoted to administrative or principal jobs.

—Establishment of a minimum education requirement (high school diploma or equivalent) to qualify for school board membership.

—Requirement of a two-thirds school board vote to fire a superintendent.

—Strengthened professional development requirements for school board members.

—Authorization for local schools superintendents to hire and fire without school board approval.


Source: Louisiana Department of Education

Date: 2/18/2009 6:54 AM

School takeovers prompt parent lawsuits

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A group of parents and teachers have filed a lawsuit, seeking to block the impending state takeover of eight Baton Rouge public schools.

The five plaintiffs claim that the Recovery School District -- the state-run school district that would assume control of these eight schools -- is already in violation of state laws.

The plaintiffs, represented by Baton Rouge School Board members Jay Augustine and Tarvald Smith, are seeking both a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction to prevent the school takeovers. State District Judge Todd Hernandez is set to hear the case on Feb. 26.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted Jan. 15 to take over 10 schools -- eight in Baton Rouge, two in Shreveport -- out of 33 chronically low-performing schools in the state.


Information from: The Advocate,

Former teacher sentenced in sex case

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A former Belaire High School art teacher has been put on probation after pleading guilty to charges that accused her of having off-campus sex with a 15-year-old male student in the fall 2007.

State District Judge Todd Hernandez sentenced 29-year-old Kesha D. Manuel on Tuesday to eight years at hard labor on a felony charge of cruelty to a juvenile and six months on a misdemeanor charge of carnal knowledge of a juvenile, but suspended both terms.

Hernandez put Manuel on active supervised probation for five years on the felony charge. The judge said Manuel cannot have any contact with the victim and cannot be employed or engaged in volunteer work that involves anyone under 17.

The judge placed Manuel on unsupervised bench probation for two years on the misdemeanor charge.


Information from: The Advocate,

Baton Rouge School places second in competition

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — St. Thomas More School in Baton Rouge took second place in the 2009 National Engineers Week Future City Competition, good enough to earn the school a big scholarship and new software.

Teams from 38 middle schools nationwide, winners of regional competitions in January, participated in the Future City National Finals this week at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

St. Thomas More won for their Future City, which they titled Esperyance. The team is comprised of students Maggie Talbot and Annie Talbot, both 13 and Tyler Bellue, 14, teacher Shirley Newman and mentor Ricky Lee of SEMS, Inc.

St. Thomas More received a $5,000 scholarship for its technology program, and a 10-seat academic suite of engineering software from Bentley Systems.


School cameras in Tangipahoa

AMITE, La. (AP) — The Tangipahoa Parish School Board is moving forward with plans to increase security at all of its 35 schools.

On Tuesday, the board approved cost quotes for cameras at Kentwood High, Independence High, Amite High, Independence Middle and West Side Middle schools. Also approved was a $20,605 contract quote for 13 cameras at Loranger High School.

Schools already with camera systems are Sumner High, Ponchatoula High, Hammond High and Northwood High schools.

Officials say camera systems provide schools with the ability to monitor campus activities. They serve to both prevent strangers from entering schools and as a deterrent to student confrontations.

Board President Danny Ridgel said eventually, all schools will have cameras.


Information from: The Advocate,


New Orleans schools get recommendations for improvement

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A panel of land use experts is set to give recommendations for marketing dozens of New Orleans schools that would be "landbanked" as part of a proposed master plan.

The Urban Land Institute panel looked at four properties considered representatives — in a business corridor, low flood plain and residential areas.

Thelma French, director of board operations for Orleans Parish schools, said the panel is providing technical assistance as part of the master planning process. It is looking at how officials might try to market the schools for another use.

Louisiana's education superintendent has said the city's school system was overbuilt before Hurricane Katrina, with capacity for about 100,000 students but only about 60,000 enrolled. The number of students is even lower post-Katrina.