THe REGION

Safe Rides on St. Patrick's Day

The Washington Regional Alcohol Program will offer free cab rides to partygoers celebrating St. Patrick's Day on Sunday and Monday evenings.

Rides will be provided from 4 p.m. Sunday until 4 a.m. Monday and from 4 p.m. Monday -- St. Patrick's Day -- until 4 a.m. Tuesday. Partygoers who have been drinking can call 800-200-TAXI for a free cab ride home, up to a $50 fare.

The Sober Ride program is available across the region to help people get home safely during holidays. Last year, more than 400 people accepted rides during St. Patrick's Day celebrations, program officials said.

THe district

Hearing Set on Union Takeover

A federal judge yesterday set an April 30 hearing date to decide whether a special monitor should be appointed to oversee the financial management of the Washington Teachers' Union.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said he will consider at that time requests by several union members who have filed suit to stop the American Federation of Teachers, the union's parent organization, from continuing to run the local union's day-to-day affairs in the wake of an embezzlement scandal.

The plaintiffs say that the federation failed to monitor the spending of previous executives of the local teachers union and that the federation cannot be trusted to manage the union, including its finances.

The federation's officials disputed that contention at yesterday's hearing.

The FBI and other agencies have been investigating the activities of former union leaders since last fall. An internal audit later found that as much as $5 million in union money may have been misspent over the years.

Much of the money allegedly helped furnish a lavish lifestyle for then-Washington Teachers' Union President Barbara A. Bullock, other union executives and their families, according to court papers filed by the FBI.

Leroy Holmes, Bullock's former chauffeur, has pleaded guilty to money laundering and is cooperating with investigators.

maRYLAND

Help for Two More Shooting Victims

The Victims' Rights Foundation, a Gaithersburg-based nonprofit group, has raised $10,300 to be split equally between two men who police believe were shot by the suspects in the Washington area sniper case.

Both men, Paul LaRuffa and Muhammad Rashid, were shot and robbed in Prince George's County in September.

LaRuffa and Rashid were not included in the initial $445,000 fund for sniper victims because they were robbery victims and not part of the series of random shootings that terrorized the Washington region in October, said Gregory Wims, president of the foundation. The foundation later decided to start a separate fund for them.

Wims said yesterday that the foundation is trying to raise an additional $55,000 for the victims, who now include LaRuffa, Rashid, the families of 13 people who were shot in October and a liquor store clerk who survived an attack in September.

Donations can be sent to the Victims' Rights Foundation, 814 West Diamond Ave., Suite 200, Gaithersburg, Md. 20878. Old cell phones and printer cartridges, which can be recycled, also are being accepted as donations.

More information about that part of the program is available at a Web site, www.donatecartridges.com.

State Housing Aid for Montgomery

Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pledged yesterday to provide $20 million in state bond money to help provide affordable housing in Montgomery County.

Ehrlich also said he will set up a commission to look for ways to help meet the need for affordable housing in communities across the state.

He said Montgomery County -- where demand for cheaper housing is especially high -- has used up the $23.9 million in bond money provided in the 2003 state budget.

The additional $20 million will be matched dollar-for-dollar by the Montgomery County Affordable Housing Trust Fund, he said.

VIRGINIA

Floris Elementary to Reopen

Floris Elementary School, which closed after last month's snowstorm and heavy rains caused a roof collapse, will reopen Monday, Fairfax County school officials announced yesterday.

In recent weeks, Floris's nearly 800 students have attended classes at neighboring schools.

The school's roof collapsed Feb. 22, causing damage around the administrative offices, the clinic, a computer lab and a theater. Because repairs are continuing, students will not be allowed in that part of the building.

Schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech assured parents and children that Floris is safe.

Health Insurance Access Discussed

Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) convened a conference in Williamsburg yesterday to discuss what could be done to help Virginians who lack health insurance.

"One of our biggest challenges is how to provide cost-effective health care for the more than 1 million Virginians who don't have insurance," Warner said.

The governor's conference brought together government agencies, private organizations and individuals interested in improving access to health care for the uninsured.

According to a survey done two years ago by the Virginia Health Care Foundation, 15 percent of Virginia's residents don't have health insurance. Seventy-seven percent of the uninsured work full- or part-time jobs.

Many cannot afford private plans but make too much money to qualify for public assistance. Nearly half of those without insurance have household incomes of more than $30,000 a year.

Jane H. Woods, secretary of health and human resources, said Virginia has made progress on expanding enrollment in Virginia's Family Access to Medical Insurance Security Plan and Medicaid.

Seventy-eight percent of eligible uninsured children are now enrolled in those two programs, Woods said. More than 37,600 children were enrolled in the past year, she said.

"Bottom line is, everything is delayed. Until we get some warm weather, you can't expect these things [cherry blossoms] to do much."

-- Rob DeFeo, chief horticulturist for the National Park Service, explaining why the Tidal Basin's cherry blossoms aren't likely to appear before April 8. -- Page B1

Compiled from reports by staff writers Christian Davenport, S. Mitra Kalita and Neely Tucker and the Associated Press.