Dorn Says Superintendent Was Political Pawn : Speaks Out on Inglewood School Board Turmoil

Times Staff Writer

In a candid and wide-ranging interview, school board President William Dorn defended the decision of three board members, including himself, to fire Supt. Rex Fortune and said turmoil in the district is the result of a “political dogfight” between Mayor Edward Vincent and state Assemblyman Curtis R. Tucker--one in which the former superintendent was an “unwitting pawn.”

Until this week, Dorn, 40, has refused to talk with The Times, but in an interview he requested, the board president for the first time discussed his view of the controversy that has ripped the district apart in recent months.

Since the board fired Fortune in early May, a coalition of parents, community leaders and board opposition members have launched a recall effort against Dorn and the other members of the board majority. Partly in response to community hostility and because a favored candidate to replace Fortune turned them down, board majority members last week voted to begin negotiations to rehire the former superintendent. The negotiations are continuing.

Political Machine

The coalition of Fortune supporters has asserted that the new board majority, which took control after the April primary, is part of a political machine controlled by Vincent and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn, a longtime Inglewood political figure who is the board president’s uncle. At stake, they say, is control of the school district and its 1,200 jobs.

Fortune himself has claimed that his dismissal stemmed from his refusal to appoint a friend of Vincent to a principalship.

Vincent and Judge Dorn have denied all charges.

In the interview this week, Dorn charged that Tucker, not Vincent, aspires to control the city and its school district, and that the assemblyman, together with the two members of the school board minority, has spread “wild accusations about the board majority and Mayor Vincent because it serves their purpose to have the district in chaos.”

“If things were to settle down, they’d have no power, no limelight. They have not produced one shred of evidence to back up their charges,” said Dorn.

Tucker’s Plans

Dorn claimed that Tucker plans to retire from his Assembly seat with a full pension next year and run for mayor of Inglewood after getting allies to run for city clerk and City Council.

Tucker denied having such plans, saying he intends to run for reelection next year. “I have no desire to give up my job and make $900 a month,” the salary for the mayor, said Tucker, who makes $33,732 per year as an assemblyman.

Dorn said Tucker has formed a “temporary alliance” with board minority members William (Tony) Draper and Rose Mary Benjamin. Benjamin, with the help of the coalition, trounced Wanda Brown in a runoff election earlier this month.

Fortune became an “unwitting pawn for this alliance when he apparently decided that he’d have to choose sides if he wanted to keep his job,” Dorn said. “That’s when he became very political.”

Extension Acceptance

He pointed to Fortune’s acceptance of a three-year extension passed by a lame-duck board majority in April as “a very political move,” and one reason behind the new majority’s initial request for his suspension.

“Nothing was presented to justify the extension. There was no review of his goals, or evaluation of his performance. The previous June that same board had refused him the 4% increase he requested, and gave him only 2%,” Dorn said.

Members who voted to extend the contract acknowledged that they were trying to protect Fortune from dismissal by the new majority.

“It was very obvious what they were doing,” Dorn said. “If Fortune truly were neutral, he would not have accepted that extension, knowing the makeup of the board had changed. He knew that accepting it would antagonize the board.

“Frankly, I can’t understand why he would want to be locked into a three-year extension facing a hostile board. I advised him--he says I threatened him--not to get in the middle of this.”

‘Sealed His Fate’

Dorn said the superintendent “sealed his fate” when he refused to place his suspension and the election of a new board president and vice president on the board’s April 22 agenda.

After that incident, Dorn said, the board’s vote for suspension became one for dismissal.

“He was insubordinate in not placing those items on the agenda. If he had any qualms about the legality of those items, he still had no right to keep them off the agenda. If county counsel later determined the items to be illegal, our actions would have been nullified anyway.”

Board attorney Andrea Oliver said she advised Fortune that the proposed agenda items might be illegal.

Dorn has since said he would vote for Fortune’s reinstatement if Fortune agreed to a number of conditions, including the withdrawal of a $3.5-million lawsuit the former superintendent filed against the district and majority members after they refused to pay off his extended $250,000 contract.

Defends Buy-Out

Dorn defended the decision not to buy out Fortune’s contract.

“It’s not as if we let him go for no reason. We fired him for blatant insubordination. If the court rules in our favor--and I think they will--that nullifies his contract,” he said. “If they rule against us, well, a compromise usually is worked out. I don’t think the district will suffer financially.”

While community leaders have expressed outrage over what they term “a lack of due process” in Fortune’s firing, Dorn maintains that the board acted within its rights. “There essentially is no due process requirement on the books,” he said. “The rules of the game say I don’t have to voice my displeasure with him. The rules of the game say that any time three board members want to vote against the superintendent, they can. There is no committee that must convene, or warnings that must be given.”

Dorn acknowledged that while such warnings may be customary, the board was antagonized by Fortune’s “politicking,” which Dorn said included speaking out against majority members and informally endorsing opposition candidates.

“In light of his rather obvious political alignment, I think we were less inclined to issue warnings. We decided he could no longer represent the district,” Dorn said.

‘Quiet the Situation’

Fortune has denied that he became political before his ouster. Dorn, who before last week had refused to list his reasons for firing Fortune, said he decided to air those reasons in the interview, “hopefully to quiet the situation and show the public we weren’t acting capriciously.”

In response to Fortune’s accusation that he is a victim of Vincent’s political whims, Dorn acknowledged that relations between the mayor and Fortune “have never been good. They’ve never had the rapport that should exist between a city official and district administrator. Vincent never did want Fortune there in the first place.

“I don’t really know the circumstances of Fortune’s accusation against the mayor. I know Vincent has considerable experience with the school district. I don’t see why, if he thought someone might be able to fulfill a certain position, he shouldn’t recommend that person.” (Vincent is a former school board member.)

“Fortune didn’t appoint that person, and he apparently feels Vincent is against him because of that,” Dorn said. “I don’t think that’s it. It certainly is not the reason he was fired.

“If Vincent was controlling me, I would have been against Fortune after that incident. I wasn’t. He still got my vote of confidence. In fact, I was the only one after his first year that gave him a vote of confidence.” Dorn said the vote was taken in executive session, so no record exists. No other board members were available for comment about that session. Fortune does not recall any such vote.

Relationship With Vincent

Dorn said that his own relationship with the mayor often is not good.

“Vincent and I really don’t get along well, so far as a personal friendship type of relationship. I disagree with some of his concepts.”

Dorn said his relationship with Fortune began to sour after Fortune failed to cooperate with his plans for Project Hope, a stay-in-school program for truants. Dorn wanted the project to include expelled students as well as truants.

“Judge Dorn and I organized a conference last December with probation officers, county officials, district officials and Fortune to discuss this possibility. We decided we wanted to go ahead with it, but Fortune never got back to me on it,” Dorn said.

Dorn claims that although he talked to Fortune “10 or 20 times about this,” he never brought it up in board meetings because “I don’t like to air our disagreements in public. He knows that I’ve talked to him in private.”

Fortune acknowledged that Dorn “had expressed some displeasure with expulsion policies,” but said some modifications in the policy were made after the conference and that Dorn has not spoken to him about it since. “We could not implement everything he said because of statutes governing expulsion cases. If he still was unhappy with it, he should have placed it on the agenda.”

‘Tactical Errors’

With district leadership in a shambles, facing a recall and bereft of the 4-1 voting bloc the board would have had if Brown had defeated Benjamin, Dorn acknowledged that the board majority has made a number of “tactical errors” since taking power.

“We were so upset with Fortune’s political alignment that we perhaps acted a little hastily, unwisely,” he said. “In retrospect, it’s easy to see that we should have waited until after the June 4 runoff before making any changes rather than jeopardize Wanda’s chances. That was a big, big mistake, a very bad ploy.”

Brown was the top vote-getter over Benjamin in the April primary. In the runoff, however, Benjamin drew unexpected support from all quarters of the city, defeating Brown by a better than 3-1 margin.

“I can see now that firing the superintendent when we did gave her (Benjamin) momentum she ordinarily would not have had. It’s ironic, because she definitely has had her differences with Fortune in the past. When it became politically expedient to be a Fortune supporter, she became one.”

Majority Looks Fragile

Now, because majority member Caroline Coleman is facing a felony trial on charges that she filed false expense vouchers for more than $1,200 in district funds, even the board’s current 3-2 majority looks fragile. Coleman, who is accused of taking the money for a New Orleans educational conference and failing to attend that conference, if convicted could get up to three years in prison. She also would be barred from holding public office and would have to resign her seat on the board.

A special election for her seat--or Dorn’s, if the recall succeeds--could shift the majority once again.

“But I wonder what it all will mean,” Dorn speculated. “I believe this is a very temporary alliance brought about by political expediency rather than a commonality of beliefs. Draper didn’t even support Benjamin in the primary. He ran a candidate against her. Neither of them have been consistent Fortune supporters in the past.

“Fortune may come back to a new board and find that he still doesn’t have a majority,” he said with a laugh. “Once they settle down, they might not be for him either.”

Won’t Run Again

Dorn, a physician elected to the $400-a-month board post two years ago, vowed that whatever the outcome, he will not run for political office again.

“This has been traumatizing,” he said. “Believe it or not, I ran the first time at the request of Judge Dorn, Ed Vincent and Curtis Tucker. That’s when they were all friends. Now that Tucker has other ambitions, and I’m no longer a supporter, he chooses to attack me, saying that I don’t live in the district.”

In the past, Dorn has been criticized for maintaining an apartment in Santa Monica. Dorn asserts that he lives with his uncle in Inglewood.

“I have the apartment in Santa Monica, yes. I also have a condo in Lake Tahoe, a place in Mammoth and a place at my uncle’s. I maintain all of them for my personal use,” he said. “The law states that you can have multiple dwellings, but can register at only one place, that it must be a place you come to every now and then. Basically I conform to that law.”

A check of voter registration and Department of Motor Vehicles records by The Times shows that Dorn currently is registered at his uncle’s address but earlier had registered at the Los Angeles address where his medical practice now is located.

“What do you call live? I spend a lot of time at my uncle’s. I’m not married. I don’t have a family. I don’t like being alone, so I spend a lot of time at his place. At least a third of my wardrobe is there.”

Pausing for a moment, he smiled and said, “Don’t you realize that if I was doing anything illegal, Tucker and Draper would have had my neck on the chopping block already?”