The new majority on the Inglewood School Board acted illegally when it tried to oust the superintendent and depose the two other board members from leadership posts, the Los Angeles County superintendent of schools has ruled.
But because the ruling was based on a technicality, the majority members can fire Supt. Rex Fortune and elect new officers as early as Monday, county Supt. Stu Gothold said.
Board member Caroline Coleman, a member of the majority faction, said both items have been placed on the agenda for Monday night's board meeting. Gothold ruled that the previous actions were illegal because they had not been on the board's agenda.
Gothold said he is distressed at the prospect of Fortune's dismissal but "as long as the items are on the next agenda, they can pretty much do what they want. I don't think it's wise, or the best possible use of taxpayers' dollars to buy out the superintendent's contract, but they have that authority. California law gives local school boards a good deal of autonomy."
Must 'Recognize Dismissal'
As for the county superintendent's role, he said, "The most we can do is see that they uphold their own bylaws and the state and county procedural codes."
He added that Fortune could contest the action in court but "we would be obligated to recognize his dismissal as soon as the board notified us in the proper manner."
Last month, when a faction supporting Fortune still controlled the board, it extended his contract two years--to 1988--and voted him a pay raise. Supporters said they hoped to prevent his firing when a newly elected member opposed to the superintendent took office and provided a third vote against him.
As a result, it now would cost the district about $200,000 to buy out his contract. Gothold said that while the board can vote to dismiss Fortune, it is obligated to uphold the financial terms of both the contract and the extension.
District Owes $310,000
Meanwhile, Gothold said, because board majority members have walked out of the last two meetings during squabbles over the disputed actions, the district has piled up nearly $310,000 in unpaid bills and payroll.
"If it continues much longer, the situation could become very serious," he said. "We have estimated that the district now has about $210,000 in unpaid vendor bills, about $65,000 in purchase orders and the balance in un-met payroll."
While the county handles all district funds, it cannot pay district bills or payroll without board authorization.
If board members do not authorize payment at the meeting Monday, Gothold said, the county could invoke "extraordinary powers" to override the board and take over payment of bills.
Coleman and Ernest Shaw, another member of the majority faction, expressed surprise at news of the county's ruling, saying they had not been informed of it.
Informed by Letters
Gothold said letters informing Coleman and Shaw of the ruling were mailed last week. Gothold said that he attempted to contact the third majority member, William Dorn, because he had been voted president by the majority, but was told Dorn would be in South America on business until Monday's meeting.
Fortune said that while he was pleased that the county would step in before the district fell into financial chaos, he was disappointed with the county superintendent's ruling.
"We knew that there were procedural errors in the actions taken on April 22," he said, "but we were hoping that some branch of government would inform the new members that they cannot violate bylaws and codes at whim. It seems that no one is anxious to bite the bullet and address the issues."
On his seemingly imminent dismissal, Fortune said, "I guess the public school superintendency just is not a safe place to be.
Feel 'Like Yankees Manager'
"I feel a little like a Yankees manager," he joked, referring to the recent firing of New York Yankees Manager Yogi Berra. "I do think this sends a message out about the reliability of the board's word. Employees and potential employees are going to have a hard time trusting them after this."
William (Tony) Draper, school board president and a member of the pro-Fortune faction, said he had hoped for a more strongly worded ruling.
"I'm still in the dark on the issues," he said. "I was hoping they would provide a little more direction. I would have preferred something saying that the actions were right or wrong. The county tells us this is the most they can do. I guess I assumed there would be more power at the county or state level to intercede and settle all this."
The ruling is the latest episode in a bitter struggle that erupted when power shifted in the recent city election from the outgoing majority to an anti-Fortune bloc endorsed by Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent.
Majority Left Meeting
That struggle escalated with the April 22 attempt by new majority members to fire Fortune and elect new officers over the objections of the two other members, who said they were out of order. After voting 3-0 to elect Dorn president and Shaw vice president, the majority members abruptly left the meeting.
The following week Dorn, Coleman and Shaw stormed out of a second meeting after Draper refused to yield the president's seat to Dorn. The 600 parents, teachers and community leaders at that meeting turned it into a discussion of the trio, with many demanding their recall and demonstrating support for the superintendent.
Heightening the controversy have been persistent charges that the new majority is controlled by Vincent and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn, a longtime political figure in the city and uncle of board member Dorn.
Those charges have been fueled by the persistent refusal of majority members to say why they want Fortune out, and by Fortune himself, who in recent weeks has charged that his precarious position is the result of his refusal to appoint a personal friend of Vincent to a principalship. Vincent and Dorn have denied all the charges, as have the majority members of the board.
Monday's meeting will be at 8 p.m. at the board's office at 401 S. Inglewood Ave.