U.S. judge gives city schools `final chance' to meet order

Flawed computer system must work by Nov. 14

October 12, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A federal judge gave top city school officials "one final chance" to have the district's special education computer system in good working condition, giving them a month to get the job done.

In his order, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said that if Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo leaves her job to accept a top post in the Florida Department of Education - and the system still isn't working properly - he could still find her in contempt of court. Garbis also said that the district's chief technology officer, Joseph J. Kirkman, also could face sanctions if the system is not fully operational by the deadline.

In a 24-page order, Garbis said for the first time that those who would assist in Russo's departure by terminating her contract - meaning the district's nine-member school board - could be considered in contempt.

At issue is the operation of the school system's Special Education Tracking System (SETS). The system tracks information on the thousands of city children receiving special education services. As a result of a lawsuit filed 18 years ago, the school district is legally required to ensure that the computer system is functioning properly.

Russo declined to comment yesterday, saying that she had not seen Garbis' order. Lawyers for the school system could not be reached for comment.

Board Vice Chairman C. William Struever said yesterday that the school system is working diligently to meet Garbis' orders.

"We're taking this extremely seriously, and it's a matter of great focus," he said.

At a hearing this month, Russo and Kirkman testified that they needed more time to correct some technical aspects of the tracking system even though they had been ordered by Garbis to have it done before the start of this school year.

In his order yesterday, Garbis said that Russo and Kirkman have not complied with his orders and that the failure of the system to be fully operational was due to "Russo's and Kirkman's management decisions, or an absence thereof."

Yesterday, Garbis set a new deadline of Nov. 14 for school officials to bring SETS up to par and scheduled a Dec. 5 hearing to determine whether they had complied.

If Garbis determines that the system continues to be in noncompliance, he wrote, he plans to "consider and impose, as appropriate, sanctions" including fines and jail time.

Garbis went on to stress that Russo's and Kirkman's personal responsibility is "not avoidable by delegation or otherwise seeking to escape responsibility."

Russo is a finalist for a top post in Florida as chancellor of kindergarten through 12th- grade education. The Florida board has said it will make its decision Oct. 24.

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