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State to investigate SF’s handling of special education services

October 18, 2012, 12:05 AM | Trey Bundy, The Bay Citizen

Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

The California Department of Education said it would investigate whether the San Francisco Unified School District violated federal regulations by improperly denying summer school services to students with special needs in order to cut costs.

The state investigation follows a report by The Bay Citizen, sister site of California Watch, that Lisa Miller – the district’s head of middle school special education – directed teachers and staff to consult with her prior to authorizing summer school for those students because the cost had become “exorbitant.”

“My big concern is whether they’re doing something illegal, in which case they have to correct it,” said Donna DeMartini, an education programs specialist at the Department of Education who will lead the investigation.

Special education teachers and attorneys said the directive – issued in a Jan. 4 email obtained by The Bay Citizen – violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which prohibits administrators from influencing a student’s education plan or denying services based on cost...

With court win, 'parent trigger' school reform moves to crucial vote

October 17, 2012, 12:05 AM | Natasha Lindstrom, The Hechinger Report

David Pardo/Victorville Daily Press Doreen Diaz, mother of a fifth-grader at Desert Trails Elementary School in Adelanto, Calif., speaks about school reform during a parent union press conference in January.

About nine months ago, at a small park playground a few hundred feet from their children’s struggling school, a group of parents chanted, cheered and delivered passionate speeches about their growing frustration with Desert Trails Elementary.

That Jan. 12 park rally – which drew a throng of camera crews and reporters from around the state to the tiny desert city of Adelanto, Calif. – marked the beginning of a bitter battle in the national spotlight. That was when the Desert Trails Parent Union announced its petition to use the so-called “parent trigger” law to force a major overhaul of a school. They hoped to become the first parent group in the nation to do so...

Hospital opens wallet to save executives' pay

October 17, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski, The Bay Citizen

Courtesy of El Camino Hospital El Camino Hospital 

A Peninsula ballot measure that would limit the pay of executives at El Camino Hospital faces its toughest opposition from the hospital, which has donated three-quarters of the campaign funds to defeat the proposal. 

El Camino Hospital has contributed $149,000 in an attempt to defeat Measure M, which would cap the annual salary and compensation package for hospital executives, managers and administrators to twice the salary of the governor of California.

Gov. Jerry Brown makes $173,987 a year. Tomi Ryba, El Camino Hospital’s CEO, makes $695,000 a year, about four times as much as the governor. She also is eligible for a bonus of up to 30 percent if she meets certain performance goals.

At least nine other hospital executives also would see their compensation shrink if local voters approve Measure M on Nov. 6, according to hospital spokeswoman Chris Ernst.

 

The hospital, which has campuses in Mountain View and Los Gatos, is by far the largest contributor to the “No on M” committee, which had received just under $200,000 in monetary contributions by the end of September, campaign finance fillings...

Few subpoenas, warrants seek Clipper card travelers' data

October 16, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Scott James/The Bay Citizen

San Francisco police arrested Marcel Largaespada on April 30 after a gunpoint robbery at a Lombard Street business, but they couldn’t catch his alleged accomplice, Alan McCahill.

McCahill gave officers the slip, investigators believed, by hopping on a Muni bus.

He was caught days later. To try to place McCahill at the scene, prosecutors subpoenaed the information from his Clipper card, which they believed he’d used to pay his bus fare.

The request for McCahill’s travel record was one of the rare occasions that police or lawyers have sought to use the Clipper card database to track the whereabouts of a cardholder.

According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, which administers the card, it has received three search warrants or subpoenas seeking customers’ personal travel information since the card’s inception in 2010. In only one of those cases did the search turn up any relevant travel information, according to the commission’s response to a public records request from The Bay Citizen...

Tax debtors owe state billions but rarely face sanctions

October 16, 2012, 12:05 AM | Matt Drange, The Bay Citizen

Matt Drange/The Bay Citizen Dr. Baldomero De Leon Jr. of Walnut Creek owes more than $4.1 million in corporate income taxes, according to the state Franchise Tax Board. 

Dr. Baldomero De Leon Jr. has practiced internal medicine for more than 30 years, currently working out of a second-floor office across the street from the John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek.

A graduate of the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, De Leon is certified for life by the American Board of Internal Medicine and is licensed by California’s medical board through 2014.

But De Leon has another distinction: His business is No. 1 on the corporate section of the Top 500 Delinquent Taxpayers released last week by the state Franchise Tax Board. The doctor owes more than $4.1 million in corporate income taxes, the board says.

When questioned Friday by a Bay Citizen reporter about his tax debt, the doctor said he didn’t have time to talk and threatened to call police.

“I’ve got patients waiting,” he said, gesturing to a patient sitting in one of four leather-backed chairs in a...

Corporations that claim to do good need more oversight, experts say

October 15, 2012, 12:05 AM | Kendall Taggart, California Watch

AlexKalina/istockphoto.com

State regulators need to have more oversight of new types of companies that claim to have a social or environmental mission, legal experts say. 

About 75 companies have registered as "benefit" or "flexible purpose" corporations since Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills into law a year ago that created the new entities.

The law is intended to shield businesses from lawsuits as they pursue social objectives, such as preserving the environment, in addition to making a profit. Traditional for-profit companies, proponents argue, could face shareholder lawsuits if they prioritize social goals at the expense of profits.

The companies that have taken advantage of the new law range from large businesses like Patagonia, which has a long-standing history of supporting environmental causes, to startups like Powerhive in Oakland, which is working to provide clean energy to households without electricity.

 

But private attorneys at a National Association of State Charity Officials conference recently told an audience of state nonprofit regulators that they had concerns...

Women use emoticons more often, but men have more variety ;-)

October 15, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Jhaymesisviphotography/Flickr

Women might use emoticons more than men, but men have a broader emoticon vocabulary.

That’s what researchers from Rice University are saying in a new study that evaluated the use of emoticons in text messages.

“This was a unique study in that we were able to collect data from subjects as they used their phones,” said Philip Kortum, a psychology professor at Rice, who said it was the first such study to watch subjects “in the wild.”

“Most studies had relied on results of self-reported behavior,” he said, which is “generally not a very good at reconstructing behavior."

Kortum said the results of this latest study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, are just one small part of a major investigation into the way college kids, and therefore people in general, use their smartphones.

Kortum and his colleagues enlisted 21 Rice students, 11 women and 10 men, and provided them with iPhones for one year. Each phone was equipped with a custom logger, or tracker, that did not interfere with the phone’s use but recorded how, when and where the student...

School official targeted special education program to cut costs

October 15, 2012, 12:05 AM | Trey Bundy, The Bay Citizen

Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen The San Francisco Unified School District's offices 

A San Francisco Unified School District administrator urged teachers to re-evaluate whether to offer summer school to special education students as a way to cut costs, a move that special education teachers and attorneys say violates federal regulations.

Lisa Miller, the district’s head of middle school special education, said in a Jan. 4 email to her staff that the cost of summer school – known as extended school year, or ESY – had become “exorbitant” and instructed all middle school special education staff not to authorize the service without her approval.

“At this time, I am asking that all middle school special education staff consult with me PRIOR TO authorizing/offering ESY,” she wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Bay Citizen, sister site of California Watch.

The directive appears to violate the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which explicitly requires each child’s special education plan to be agreed upon by the student’s family, educators and disability experts, not district administrators. The regulations also prohibit districts from denying student services based on cost...

Big donors give far and wide, influence out-of-state races and issues

October 15, 2012, 12:05 AM | Evelyn Larrubia, Investigative News Network

Brooks Elliott/Flickr

The focus on billionaires’ and corporations’ contributions to super PACs this year has highlighted the impact of the rich and powerful on the presidential campaigns.

But an analysis by the Investigative News Network of contributions by wealthy individuals in seven states shows that their giving is greater than any one cause or race reveals – with millions flowing into state, federal and even local campaigns, parties and committees far and wide.

Take Colorado software entrepreneur and gay rights activist Tim Gill. He has given $450,000 to Colorado independent expenditure committees so far this political cycle, which began in 2011. He’s also given generously out of state – $100,000 to the Ohio Democratic Party Executive Committee and $25,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party – and smaller amounts to 26 candidates and causes in that time, from President Barack Obama to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, to candidates running for the Colorado state house...

Top donors go all in on state ballot measures

October 12, 2012, 12:05 AM | Will Evans, California Watch

ericsphotography/istockphoto.com

The top 10 donors to November's state ballot measures – a smattering of extremely wealthy people, powerful unions and large corporations – have dumped more than $150 million into the fight so far, according to campaign finance tracker MapLight.org.

The mega-donors include politically opposed siblings, a 91-year-old car insurance magnate, a conservative group that keeps its donors secret and a teachers union that has outspent every other special interest in the last decade. MapLight.org tracks the top donors of each ballot initiative on its Voter's Edge website.

At the top of the list this year is civil rights attorney Molly Munger, who has given nearly $30 million of her own fortune to pass Proposition 38 [PDF], which would raise taxes to fund K-12 education. Her father is a billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway. 

"Molly Munger is investing her own money in the campaign because she cares deeply about the state of public education," Nathan Ballard, campaign strategist, said in an email...

BART closes, then reopens bids on controversial project

October 12, 2012, 12:05 AM | Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen

Prayitno/Flickr BART has reopened the bidding process to develop property it owns around the Millbrae BART station. 

BART has quietly reopened the bidding to develop valuable real estate near the Millbrae BART station, leading to calls for a public hearing on negotiations that have been shrouded in secrecy and marred by accusations of favoritism.

Last May, the BART board voted to enter into exclusive negotiations with Justin Development to build a hotel, even though studies showed that Republic Urban’s proposal to develop an office complex would likely mean more money and riders for the transit agency.

Justin is owned by Lawrence Lui, a friend and campaign contributor to BART Director James Fang. Behind closed doors, Fang persuaded the board last year to vote for Justin and against Republic Urban, a developer backed by BART Director Joel Keller...

Richmond's handling of stimulus grant under federal review

October 12, 2012, 12:05 AM | Jennifer Gollan, The Bay Citizen

San Jose Library/Flickr

A federal agency has launched a review into allegations that the city of Richmond submitted erroneous reports as part of a nearly $400,000 federal stimulus grant aimed at encouraging broadband use among minorities and low-income residents.

In an interview, Katy Curl, the city’s Library and Cultural Services director, acknowledged that her department could not document $57,000 worth of in-kind services, such as electricity and phone bills, it claimed to have provided over the past two fiscal years as part of the program.

“We used the numbers in good faith that they were correct,” Curl said. “As we looked back, it wasn’t a number that could be verified.”

Prompted by a whistle-blower complaint from a finance manager in the city’s Library and Cultural Services Department, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration began reviewing the city’s handling of the grant this month. The grant is part of a $4.7 billion program to improve the nation’s broadband system. The whistle-blower declined to be named for fear of jeopardizing her job prospects.

 

It does not appear that any federal funds...

Advocates point to loan protection for community colleges

October 11, 2012, 12:05 AM | Erica Perez, California Watch

urbancow/istockphoto.com

It’s been three years since Tyeisha Turner left her job at a call center to get her college degree. Even though the state waived her tuition at Antelope Valley College and she has a Pell Grant and works part time, it isn’t enough for the single mother of five to cover living expenses – so she has borrowed about $18,000 in federal loans.

Turner, 35, says the loans let her focus on her studies and work faster toward her goal of transferring to a four-year university.

“I definitely need it. It helps me continue my education,” Turner said. “Because I’m only working part time – 15 to 20 hours a week – that makes up for that income. You can't survive with just part-time employment. That doesn't cover the rent.”

Turner is among the 93,000 California community college students who borrowed federal loans in 2010-11. As big as that number is, it’s a tiny slice – about 4 percent – of all students who attend community colleges here. That’s partly because California’s community college tuition is the lowest in the nation and many students take only a class or two at a time...

'Professionalized' doping program aided Armstrong, agency says

October 10, 2012, 11:41 AM | Lance Williams and Matt Smith, California Watch

Marc Pagani Photography/Shutterstock Lance Armstrong in 2004 

Cycling superstar Lance Armstrong earned his unprecedented seven victories in the Tour de France with the aid of a “sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program” on his racing team, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency said today.

Eleven former cyclists from the U.S. Postal Service team have told investigators that for years, Armstrong used an array of performance-enhancing drugs, the agency’s chief executive, Travis Tygart, said in a statement.

Riders on Armstrong’s team were pressured to take banned drugs and participate in a cover-up of doping on the team, Tygart said.

“The evidence of the US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team-run scheme is overwhelming and is in excess of 1,000 pages, and includes sworn testimony from 26 people, including 15 riders with knowledge of the US Postal Service Team,” the release says. It adds that a full evidence dossier will be made public later today...

Imperial County earthquakes highlight unresolved school risks

October 10, 2012, 12:05 AM | Corey G. Johnson, California Watch

Division of the State Architect Ceiling plaster litters Palmer Auditorium's stage in Brawley Union High School after the school was rattled by earthquakes. 

The swarm of earthquakes that rippled through Imperial County in late August has exposed more fissures in the state's system for identifying and fixing school buildings considered structurally unsound.

At Brawley Union High School, an Aug. 27 inspection of the school's auditorium by state and district engineers found cracked walls, toppled fixtures and chunks of ceiling plaster littered across floors, seats and the performance stage. The auditorium has yet to reopen. School officials estimate the building could be closed for a full year.

The damage to Palmer Auditorium occurred when 400 small earthquakes erupted from Aug. 25 to Aug. 28 in Brawley and other areas in Imperial County. There were no deaths or major injuries, but scattered power outages occurred. One hospital temporarily evacuated its patients.

State officials now acknowledge the auditorium should have been red flagged well before the quake...

Disparities persist for children's well-being, study says

October 10, 2012, 12:05 AM | Joanna Lin, California Watch

caseywest/Flickr

California has made gains in the early stages of children's academic trajectory but has failed to sustain them, a new assessment of kids' well-being has shown.

The findings, released yesterday by the research and advocacy group Children Now, showed statewide improvement in 11 indicators of well-being, including certain measures of academic performance and student engagement at school. But they also highlighted 12 areas in which the state has made little or no progress, such as the rate of high school seniors who graduate on time.

"California is on the right track," said Jessica Mindnich, associate director of research at Children Now. "You are seeing some of the effects where the state has decided to prioritize."

In the percentage of third-graders who read at grade level, for example, California improved 39 percent between the 2002-03 and 2010-11 school years. Its percentage of seventh-graders meeting or exceeding state standards in math jumped 67 percent during the same period...

Armstrong's lawyer calls doping case a 'publicity stunt'

October 9, 2012, 3:23 PM | Lance Williams and Matt Smith, California Watch

Brad Camembert/Shutterstock Lance Armstrong in 2011 

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency case against cyclist Lance Armstrong is a mere publicity stunt that the anti-drugs regulator cannot back up with conclusive evidence, the seven-time Tour de France winner’s attorney wrote in a letter to the agency today.

“USADA is still trying to create evidence and put it in the file,” attorney Tim Herman wrote. “Armstrong has been selectively singled out, prosecuted and treated differently than any other athlete, no doubt so that USADA can cash in on the publicity.”

Agency spokeswoman Annie Skinner brushed aside the critique.

“We are happy to let the evidence speak for itself,” she said in an email to California Watch.

In February, the U.S. attorney’s office abandoned its 20-month investigation into allegations that Armstrong had led a doping ring involving banned steroids and blood transfusions.

The anti-doping agency's CEO, Travis Tygart, followed up with his own investigation, ultimately recommending that Armstrong be banned from professional cycling for life and have his tour titles yanked. Armstrong’s legal team launched a...

Orange County revamps assistance for indigent following lawsuit

October 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch

sibaudio/stock.xchng

In June of last year, after being jobless and homeless for nearly two years, Orange County native Edwin Mankinen decided to apply for $239 in monthly general relief benefits, a cash payment also known as general assistance that is offered by each California county to indigent residents. 

But when he went to apply for the funds, Mankinen said he was repeatedly stymied and rebuffed. Other applicants had similar complaints, prompting a class-action lawsuit [PDF] filed in Orange County. Mankinen is the lead plaintiff in the case, which claims that the county has “systematically and unlawfully denied or discouraged” eligible people from obtaining general relief, according to the complaint.

“I never thought that this would be something that I would have to do,” Mankinen told California Watch. “I applied for general relief because I was homeless. I had no transportation, no place to live, and I was at the end of my rope. The economy was so bad and not having a car, it was hard for me to get a job. I had no place to live and to keep myself in a condition where I could go and look for work.”

Stephanie Haffner, one of the attorneys handling the lawsuit, said Orange County's general relief program often is the last resort...

Matches made in food heaven get scientific explanation

October 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Susanne Rust, California Watch

Chiyacat/Shutterstock

It’s not just researchers who have noticed that people enjoy a nice glass of dark, red wine with their steaks.

But they now know why.

Common knowledge suggests that it is the cleansing sensation people appreciate in astringent foods such as a vinegary salad, a cup of tea or a lemon sorbet. Wine acts in the same way.

But a team from Rutgers University in New Jersey and the Monell Chemical Sense Institute – a Philadelphia-based nonprofit scientific organization focused on the senses of taste and smell – says it’s more.

The research is published in this week's Current Biology.

"We were not setting out initially to determine why steak and wine go together. It was more theoretical," said Paul Breslin of Rutgers University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center. 

"Fat makes the mouth overly lubricated and astringents make the mouth underlubricated," Breslin said. "So we wanted to test the idea that these two sensations were at opposite ends of oral lubrication sensations. And if this were true, they should oppose one another the...

Oakland schools seek kitchen upgrades with ballot measure

October 9, 2012, 12:05 AM | Katharine Mieszkowski, The Bay Citizen

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Public schools in Oakland are looking for major kitchen remodeling with a measure on the November ballot.

If approved, Measure J would authorize the Oakland Unified School District to issue up $475 million in bonds to improve school facilities. 

Along with seismic upgrades and lead-paint removal, the bonds could help underwrite a planned overhaul of kitchen facilities in the district, including building a new central kitchen in West Oakland. It’s part of an ongoing effort to improve the food the district serves to students, some 70 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals.

Oakland has made strides toward serving healthier and fresher food in recent years. For instance, the district now buys more fresh fruits and vegetables from within 250 miles of Oakland. There are salad bars at 67 schools.

But it’s infrastructure, not ingredients, that’s become the biggest barrier to making lunches healthier and tastier. Many schools have antiquated kitchens – if they have a kitchen at all...

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