2 plead guilty to stealing housing funds; Former Lancaster officials changed tenants’ applications for federal aid

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Two former officials of Lancaster’s public housing office pleaded guilty Friday to federal charges that they stole more than $90,000 in government funds through a scheme to make tenants look poorer than they actually were.

The two ex-employees are Sharon Morris, 67, and Catherine Massingill, 40. Ms. Morris was a 22-year employee of the city of Lancaster and headed the Lancaster Housing Office from 1988 until her retirement in January 1999. Ms. Massingill was her assistant.

According to the U.S. attorney’s office, the scheme began in 1994, when the two employees determined they could provide false information to get more federal housing funds.

When potential Section 8 housing tenants applied for government assistance, Ms. Morris and Ms. Massingill changed the financial information they reported. The changes made tenants eligible for more government money; some suddenly qualified for a 100 percent federal payment of their monthly rent.

Ms. Morris and Ms. Massingill paid the tenants’ rent with the extra government money their changes produced but continued to ask the tenants to pay what would have been their share of the rent. The two women kept the tenants’ payments for themselves.

The scheme continued until 1999, a federal investigator said.

“There was nobody watching them,” said Bob Kemins, a special assistant U.S. attorney attached to the Housing Fraud Initiative Task Force in Arlington. “Morris ran the office. No one was looking over their shoulder.”

Mr. Kemins said that the tenants faced no loss of money because they were paying the amount they should have if their income had been correctly reported. The two employees even gave receipts for the rental payments they received, he said.

“They both said, ‘We can’t believe it got so out of hand,'” Mr. Kemins said.

Ms. Morris and Ms. Massingill were originally indicted in January on an additional conspiracy charge. That charge will be dropped in exchange for the two guilty pleas to theft of government program funds.

Sentencing is set for July 2. Each woman faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. As part of the guilty plea, they will be required to repay federal housing money they stole.

Texans ace math, lag in science; Teachers say test results show that some subjects virtually ignored

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

Well-practiced from years of Texas Assessment of Academic Skills testing, the state’s eighth-graders beat out most of their domestic competition in a test of math skills, a study released Wednesday said.

But they fell below the national average in science, leading some teachers to argue that the state’s emphasis on testing math, reading and writing skills has too often left other subjects ignored.

“There are many places you could visit in Texas where there’s almost no science being taught,” said Dr. Linda Knight, president of the Science Teachers Association of Texas. “The focus is on math and reading, and it’s difficult to get the time to teach anything else.”

Wednesday’s announcement is part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, which has compared American students with their overseas counterparts in math and science since 1995. The most recent study, in 1999, compared eighth-graders from 38 nations.

For the first time, however, the study allowed U.S. states and school districts to participate as if they were independent nations. Thirteen states, including Texas, volunteered, along with 14 districts and groups of districts. Nearly 2,000 Texas students from 52 randomly selected schools took part in the study.

In math – a subject that state officials have increasingly emphasized in the last decade through standardized testing – Texas eighth-graders fared well. Only Michigan scored higher among the 13 states studied.

Internationally, Texas finished in the same range as Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, but well behind top Asian nations such as Singapore and South Korea. It also finished significantly ahead of the international average, which was pulled down by low-performing nations such as Turkey and Morocco.

“We’re very pleased with the results,” said Texas Education Agency spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson. “It shows our teachers and our curriculum are paying off.”

But the news wasn’t as positive in science, a subject in which Texas finished 11th of the 13 states participating, barely edging out North Carolina and Maryland. Texas finished below the American average and not significantly better than the international average.

Texas’ performance ran counter to most other states, which generally ranked higher in science than in math.

Dr. Knight, who teaches science in the Houston school system, puts much of the blame on the way Texas aggressively tests some subjects, including math, and puts less emphasis on others, like science.

In Texas, most students will have taken six TAAS tests in reading and six more in math by the time they finish eighth grade. Teachers, schools and districts are evaluated in part on test scores, which are used to figure the accountability ratings that the TEA gives schools.

In addition, students must pass exit-level math and reading tests to get a diploma.

There is only a single TAAS test in science, given in the eighth grade, and passage is not required for graduation.

As a result, Dr. Knight and others said, teachers shift emphasis away from subjects such as science and social studies and toward math and reading.

“I’ve had elementary schoolteachers complain to me they’ve had principals come into their room and say, ‘This looks like science! You’re supposed to be teaching math!'” Dr. Knight said.

Other teachers have complained of being told to spend the first 10 minutes of a science class on math problems or to include writing assignments in the weeks leading up to the TAAS, she said.

“If you tell a principal his paycheck is based on this test but not on how your kids do in science, he’s going to put his resources in the areas the state emphasizes,” said John David, an eighth-grade science teacher at Marshall Middle School in Houston.

Texas isn’t the only place where science teachers are feeling marginalized. As more states move toward high-stakes testing in math and reading, science is often being pushed aside, according to Dr. Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Only four states – Louisiana, New Mexico, New York and Ohio – have high-stakes testing in science. Nine others plan to introduce it in the next few years.

“There’s a huge disconnect between our national priorities and the priorities of school leaders,” Dr. Wheeler said. “Business people are always talking about how they need more qualified technology workers, but the schools aren’t emphasizing the science needed to produce them.”

Ms. Culbertson said that the state education agency is committed to science education and that the math and reading focus of TAAS will soon shift to include a broader set of subject areas.

Beginning in 2003, a revised battery of TAAS tests will include science tests for fifth-, 10th- and 11th-graders, while the eighth-grade test will be eliminated. Passing the 11th-grade exit-level test – which will include biology, chemistry and physics – will be required for graduation.

How a school’s students fare on science tests will become a factor in its accountability ratings in 2004.

“We’re doing what we need to keep science in the forefront,” Ms. Culbertson said.