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Times Square ball is being assembled

Workers began assembling the New Year's Eve ball Wednesday, the centerpiece of the annual Times Square celebration watched by millions of people worldwide.

Standing on the roof of 1 Times Square, electricians armed with electric screwdrivers gingerly attached 504 crystal triangles to the 6-foot-diameter aluminum frame.

At precisely 11:59 p.m. Sunday, the $1-million ball will begin its traditional slide down a 77-foot-tall pole, illuminating the numerals "2001" at midnight.

Former heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali will push the button to start the descent of the ball, which has 72 crystal triangles made by Waterford Crystal. Anita Brady, a Waterford marketing official, said Ali was chosen to do the honors because of his work with philanthropic groups that fight world hunger.

Online school aimed at

kids through 12th grade

A prominent group of investors and educators announced plans Wednesday to open a school in cyberspace that will allow students in kindergarten through 12th grade to get an education without ever setting foot in a classroom.

The new virtual campus is aimed at the nation's nearly 2-million home-schooled students, but its curriculum also is being marketed to school districts and parents who want to supplement the traditional public school education.

Known as K12, the school will cost about $1,500 annually for the basic curriculum. The price can rise to $5,000 or more for courses, a computer, on-call teacher assistance and other services.

William Bennett, the former U.S. secretary of education and drug czar, is developing the project with financial support from Lowell Milken, brother of convicted "junk-bond" financier Michael Milken and head of Knowledge Universe Learning Group. The company invested an initial $10-million.

Judge blocks secret vote

in Texas Senate

AUSTIN, Texas _ A judge barred the Texas Senate from electing an acting lieutenant governor in secret, ruling Wednesday in favor of Texas newspapers seeking a public vote.

The decision by District Judge Lora Livingston involving the powerful state government post was upheld by a state appeals court. A ruling was expected from the Texas Supreme Court today.

The Republican-controlled Senate had planned to hold a secret ballot today to elect one of its members to replace Rick Perry, the lieutenant governor who became governor last week when George W. Bush resigned to become president.

San Francisco Zoo says

pair of koalas abducted

SAN FRANCISCO _ Two koalas were reported stolen from the San Francisco Zoo on Wednesday, and officials say the stress could kill the bearlike animals within days if they don't receive proper care.

Leanne, 7, and her mother, Pat, 15, were discovered missing from their indoor quarters by an animal keeper. Zoo officials said it appears someone climbed onto the exhibit's roof, broke through the skylight and entered the building through a furnace door.

Police have no suspects.

Also Wednesday . . .

PRISON JOURNALIST: A prosecutor in Lake Charles, La., vowed Wednesday to retry award-winning jailhouse journalist Wilbert Rideau to keep him in prison for the 1961 murder of a bank teller. Rideau's conviction for abducting and killing bank teller Julia Ferguson was overturned last week by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

STOLEN PACKAGES: A Los Angeles FedEx contract driver took packages he was supposed to deliver and gave some of the items to relatives as Christmas presents, authorities said. Russell Carnes, 29, stole packages worth about $14,000 in October and November. He pleaded no contest to a charge of grand theft.

NEWSPAPER STRIKE: Newspaper workers planned to vote on the latest contract offers in the 5-week-old strike that has forced one paper to consider disciplinary action against workers accused of breaking picket-line rules. Striking workers at the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer were expected to vote Wednesday night after meeting with mediators.

ONE OF FBI'S MOST WANTED: Eric Franklin Rosser, 48, a keyboard player who ran a music school for children in Bangkok, Thailand, became the first child pornography suspect on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list Wednesday. He once played keyboard with rock star John Mellencamp.