MARYLAND

Audit Questions 3 Agencies' Spending

An audit released yesterday questioned thousands of dollars in "exorbitant" costs paid by three Maryland agencies for janitorial supplies.

In one instance, the State Highway Administration paid $28.50 per can of wasp and hornet spray that could have been purchased from another vendor for $3.24 per can, according to findings by the Office of Legislative Audits.

In all, the audit found 85 purchases totaling $63,987 that could have been purchased for $14,174. The review was limited to janitorial and maintenance supplies made with corporate purchasing cards by the State Highway Administration, Springfield Hospital Center and Morgan State University between July 2001 and November 2003.

The audit's findings have been referred to the Criminal Investigations Division of the attorney general's office.

High School Emptied by Gas Leak

A gas leak from a construction project forced the evacuation of Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg shortly after noon yesterday, officials said.

Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service spokesman Pete Piringer said that after people smelled gas in the school, the 1,900 students and 205 staff members were sent outside. They spent the rest of the school day on the Quince Orchard Library lawn, according to a school system spokesman.

A backhoe installing a drain near the school's track accidentally ruptured a four-inch gas line, Piringer said. Washington Gas Co. shut off the gas line about 1:45, and there were no injuries, he said.

Officials said they expect the school to open on time today.

Owners Succeed in Defending Snakeheads

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has withdrawn a proposal to ban all varieties of snakehead fish in the state, bowing to pet owners who say their species of snakehead are no threat to the environment, officials said.

The proposal, which would have gone into effect Sept. 13, was inspired by the discovery of numerous northern snakehead fish, a native of China and Korea, in the Potomac this summer. But the rule also would have banned some of that snakehead's tropical cousins, which could not survive a cold mid-Atlantic winter.

Department of Natural Resources official Howard King said a group of pet owners had persuaded the state that the law should ban only snakeheads that could survive in the wild in Maryland. He said more research was needed to determine how many species the new rule should cover.

THE DISTRICT

Parents Sue Over Quality of Schools

A group of District public school parents and education advocates, called Save our Schools Southeast and Northeast, and other parents filed suit yesterday in federal court arguing that the public schools provide "wholly inadequate" education and facilities to many of the city's neediest children.

The suit alleges that leaders of the D.C. public school system abdicated their responsibilities to fix long-standing problems in the schools and instead focused their energies on "school choice" programs that allow some children to opt out of the system and attend charter schools, further draining resources from remaining schools.

Terry Collingsworth, the attorney who filed the suit, called the school choice programs a "policy to condemn the mostly low-income African American students left in public schools to a segregated system that does not even meet the 'separate but equal' standard that the Supreme Court repudiated in Brown v. Board of Education 50 years ago."

virginia

More Students Taking AP Tests

The number of public school students in Virginia taking Advanced Placement exams increased by 6.9 percent this year, according to the state's Department of Education.

In 2004, more than 34,000 public school students -- and 5,225 other students -- took the exams, which test college-level material. Students scored well enough to receive college credit on more than half of the exams they took.

The figures also show that more Hispanic and black students are taking the exams.

The state has been pushing students to take AP courses, including offering a new online Virtual Advanced Placement School where students can explore AP coursework free of charge.

Connolly Advocates After-School Activities

Idle time after school makes middle school students more vulnerable to gangs, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman said yesterday in a speech in Annandale.

Chairman Gerry E. Connolly (D) said Fairfax needs to consider returning after-school programs such as intramural sports to the middle schools. Currently, subsidized after-school care programs end at sixth grade, and intramural sports were cut years ago to save money.

Connolly said middle school is the prime age for gang recruitment, so it's important to keep youngsters involved in other activities. He told a meeting of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees that investing in youth programs is much cheaper for the county than prosecuting and jailing someone.

the region

I-95 Ramp's Second Lane Opens

A second exit lane on an Interstate 95 flyover at the Springfield Mixing Bowl opened yesterday, months ahead of schedule.

The lane will make it easier for motorists to descend from the ramp directly onto I-95, thereby reducing backups on the flyover and the portion of the Capital Beltway that leads to it. For the few months that the $31 million ramp has been open, drivers have had to merge from two lanes into one at the end of the flyover because of construction near the end of the mile-long ramp.

The second ramp lane was not scheduled to open until the end of the year, but Virginia transportation officials said they were able to expedite construction. They said they were particularly pleased to have it available for Labor Day weekend, when thousands of vacationers are expected to join the 20,000 motorists who take the ramp each day.

"I've worked for Metro for 23 years and I recognize how vulnerable we are. Explosives are still the number one choice of terrorists, and they go where the numbers are -- often, that's a transit environment."

-- Metro Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson, explaining one reason Metro will begin training commuters in ways to evacuate trains and tunnels and help fellow passengers during a terrorist attack or rail disaster. -- Page B1

Compiled from reports by staff writers John Wagner, Linda Perlstein, David S. Fahrenthold, Carol D. Leonnig, Steven Ginsberg and Rosalind S. Helderman and the Associated Press.