Inglewood Board Decides It Wants Supt. Fortune Back
In an unexpected turnabout, the school board decided unanimously this week to try to rehire Rex Fortune as superintendent, less than two months after a new majority on the board fired him on a 3-2 vote.
Fortune, however, said he has “serious doubts” about the offer--which contains several conditions--and will not make a decision until he is contacted by the board.
For the record:
12:00 AM, Jun. 27, 1985 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 27, 1985 Home Edition South Bay Part 9 Page 6 Column 4 Zones Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
In a story June 13, The Times quoted an Inglewood School Board member as saying that George McKenna, principal of Washington Preparatory School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, had applied to be superintendent of the Inglewood district two years ago. McKenna says he has never applied for the job.
One majority member said the board is turning to Fortune because it cannot find anyone else to take the job, given the divisions on the board.
The reversal also appeared to be aimed at ending the controversy surrounding the firing, which has led to an effort to recall the members who voted for it. The dismissal also was seen as a factor in the landslide reelection victory last week of a board member who voted against it.
Must Drop Claim
Board President William Dorn, one of the three members who voted in April to fire Fortune, made the motion at Monday’s board meeting to negotiate his rehiring but also outlined a list of conditions that Fortune would have to meet.
Those conditions include:
- Dropping a $3.5-million claim against the district and the board members who voted to fire him.
- Forgoing the three-year contract extension voted him by the previous majority on the board and reverting to a contract that expires in 1986. At the end of one year, Dorn said, Fortune would be evaluated by the board before it decided whether to renew his contract.
- Ceasing “political activities for or against certain board members.” Since being fired, Fortune has spoken out against board members who voted to fire him.
- Withdrawing a disability claim filed because of “emotional and mental distress” suffered as a result of the firing and agreeing to a medical examination certifying him as physically and mentally fit to resume his duties.
- Agreeing to carry out the “goals and objectives of the board,” which would serve as the basis for his evaluation at the end of the year.
Must Assist Coleman
About 200 residents at the meeting greeted the board’s vote with murmurs of surprise, but the reaction of some turned to ridicule when Dorn read the conditions.
One requirement was not read by Dorn to the crowd Monday but was included on a list hastily hand-written by the board’s newly appointed attorneys during a private session earlier Monday. It would require Fortune to “assist Caroline Coleman in resolving and obtaining a dismissal of allegations and charges pending before the district attorney and the courts.”
Coleman, another member of the board majority, has a preliminary hearing today on a felony charge that she misappropriated $1,500 in district money in November, 1983, when she traveled to New Orleans for an educational conference. Conference officials say they have no evidence that she attended or even registered for the conference. Coleman, who insists she did attend, has returned the money.
It was not stated how Fortune could help Coleman’s case. Dorn would not say which board member suggested enlisting Fortune’s help, “but it was not one of my factors,” he said. Coleman could not be reached for comment.
Benjamin, Draper Blamed
Dorn, in a rare interview Tuesday, blamed Fortune’s supporters on the board--Rose Mary Benjamin and William (Tony) Draper--and a neighborhood group for the board’s inability to find a replacement.
“We have made several attempts to get qualified people to come to the district. We have not been able to because of chaos and disruption caused by Draper, Benjamin and the Ladera group,” Dorn said, referring to homeowners in Ladera Heights, an affluent, unincorporated area north of the city that is included in its school system.
Dorn said the majority decided to forgo hiring a consulting firm to recommend a new superintendent because “I don’t believe they will be able to come up with qualified candidates for the same reason we can’t. No one is going to come in on a 3-2 vote.”
That was indeed a reason cited by the majority’s first choice to replace Fortune.
George McKenna, principal of Washington Preparatory School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Dorn offered him the superintendency last week but he turned it down because the district is “politically unstable.”
Wait for ‘Clouds to Clear’
“I’m an educator,” he said. “I don’t profess to be politically sophisticated, but I do know you need more than a 3-2 vote if you’re going to make educational strides in a district. I would have to wait for the political clouds to clear before I would consider entering that arena.”
Draper said McKenna had applied for the position two years earlier but was “paper-screened” out by a consulting firm.
During the Monday meeting, Dorn also explained for the first time why majority members voted to suspend Fortune with pay and later to fire him.
“We did not believe he had made substantial improvements in the high schools or that he had improved the facilities at places like Morningside High School,” Dorn said. Morningside, Inglewood High School and Hillside continuation school have shown steadily declining test scores for years. This year, however, Inglewood received $50,000 from the state for improved test scores. Hillside received about $3,000 for similar academic achievement.
Dorn said Fortune also “failed to comprehend the structure and goals of Project Hope,” a stay-in-school program aimed at truants.
Others Rate It Successful
Project Hope has been considered a success by most community leaders, city officials and the Police Department. Dorn, however, said the program was not “realizing its full potential” because of Fortune’s refusal to work with him and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn, a juvenile court judge in the Inglewood area who also is William Dorn’s uncle.
William Dorn accused Fortune of failing to properly notify him of several board meetings and of “possible collusion with certain members of the board to extend his contract.”
He also accused Fortune of “alleged improprieties” regarding school contracts, the improper transfer of school funds and the appointment of administrators for positions that were not advertised.
Dorn later said that several contracts, such as those for asphalt paving, consistently had only one bidder. “I don’t think they were handled in the proper manner. Also, when we installed a new phone system we were presented with only one bidder. I think something was wrong there. I have gone back through the files and found letters missing.”
Transfer of Funds
Regarding the transfer of funds, Dorn said that “I found funds that were supposed to be restricted to one category that later were shifted. That has never been answered to my satisfaction.”
Dorn said the move for suspension turned to one for dismissal after Fortune refused to put his suspension on the agenda as directed by the new majority. In an earlier interview, Fortune has said he did so on the advice of the board’s attorneys and Draper, who then was board president.
Recently elected Ernest Shaw, a member of the board’s majority, said he agreed with Dorn’s conditions but limited his reasons for Fortune’s dismissal to a “lack of confidence in him,” failure to raise high school test scores substantially and insubordination in his refusal to place his suspension on the agenda.
Shaw said that despite the deep rift between the board majority and Fortune, he believes that Fortune could still be an effective administrator if reinstated.
‘Willing to Begin Anew’
“I’m willing to begin anew,” Shaw said. “I’m willing to look at where he is today, not where he was yesterday. We’ve had enough chaos and character assassination. If I had an eraser, I’d just erase the last two months out of my mind and look at everything fresh.”
Fortune said he had not been contacted about the board’s offer, nor had Dorn informed him of the reasons for his dismissal.
“Based on what others have told me he has accused me of, I challenge him to find the minutes of the meeting where he raised any of those concerns. That’s why we have school board meetings--so the board can give direction to the superintendent. If he can’t produce those minutes, it seems to me a little out of line to then fire someone over concerns that you have not voiced.”
Fortune said that regarding the contract bids and transfer of funds, “the district has always conformed to fair practices.”
“They made an arbitrary decision to fire the superintendent, and then more than a month later we get two or three trumped-up reasons trickled out to us. I think these charges were invented after the fact to lend credibility to a decision that was politically motivated and which now turns out to be unsupported by the general population.”
Issue of Principalship
Fortune has said in the past that the reason he was fired is because he refused to accede to demands by Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent that he appoint a friend of Vincent to a principalship. Vincent has denied that charge.
As to the offer to rehire him, Fortune said he had “serious doubts about the integrity and credibility” of the offer.
“They seem to want a laundry list of concessions from me without guaranteeing anything in return. How do I know how long these conditions would hold even if I were to agree to them? How do I know they won’t change as soon as things quiet down?”
Fortune said that with the present makeup of the board, he would not agree to the nullification of his contract extension.
“If Coleman and Dorn resign, and there is a board in there with a commitment to education, that might change, but my faith in this board has been shattered. I’m prepared to become superintendent when this board declares its educational goals and I’m given the flexibility to see those goals are achieved. That was the direction we were headed in prior to the advent of this new majority. That’s the direction the district needs now.”
The firing of Fortune, who in his two years as superintendent maintained a low-key, neutral profile, has become the rallying point for a fledgling political group dedicating itself to the recall of the board majority that came to power after the April election.
The group claimed its first victory in Benjamin’s reelection last week over a candidate supported by the new majority. It is also trying to get enough signatures to put Dorn’s recall on the ballot and has said it will try to recall Coleman and Shaw as well.