Saying he had "repented," school board member Ernest Shaw took other members by surprise Monday when he cast the crucial third vote needed to rehire former Supt. Rex Fortune, whom he had voted to fire six weeks ago.
Just two days earlier at a weekend negotiating meeting, Shaw had said he did not favor rehiring the superintendent unless he met a lengthy list of conditions that included forgoing a two-year contract extension approved by a previous board.
Monday, however, Shaw called Fortune "the best man" and said he regretted his earlier vote to fire him. "I just want to erase the events of the last six weeks out of my mind and start fresh," he said.
School board President William Dorn, who had led the move to oust Fortune, voted against his reinstatement, saying that he still was opposed to Fortune returning with the extended contract. Board member Caroline Coleman, who also had voted to fire Fortune, was absent from both the weekend negotiating session and Monday's meeting. Longtime Fortune supporters William (Tony) Draper and Rose Mary Benjamin voted for reinstatement.
'Back to Business'
Dorn later said that while he was surprised at Shaw's reversal, he was "glad that this finally is over and we can get back to business."
"I'm still not pleased about the extension," Dorn said, "but maybe we've all learned from this and will place more emphasis on better communication in the future."
As part of his reinstatement, Fortune agreed to drop his $3.5-million wrongful-discharge claim against the district and the board members who voted to fire him. He also agreed to withdraw the worker's compensation claim he had filed and to cease political activities for or against board members. After he was fired, Fortune became active in opposition board member Rose Mary Benjamin's reelection campaign and in a recall movement against Dorn.
Some of the district's voters, who in April elected Shaw and reelected Coleman, turned on the anti-Fortune majority when it fired the superintendent without stating its reasons.
At the June 10 board meeting, Dorn disclosed the reasons behind his vote to fire Fortune, saying the superintendent should have refused the extension voted him by the lame-duck majority in April. In addition, he said, Fortune acted "insubordinately" when he failed to place his suspension on the agenda, as requested by the majority.
Fortune said his removal was the result of his refusal to appoint a friend of Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent to a principalship. Vincent and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn have been characterized by many in the city as behind-the-scenes leaders of a political machine that would like to control the city and school district. Vincent and Judge Dorn, who is William Dorn's uncle, have denied those claims.
Dissatisfaction with the board and its ouster of Fortune became the basis for a grass-roots recall movement that encompassed parents, community leaders and teachers. Fortune credited that coalition with his return.
"I fully believe it was that large-scale, broad-based message from the community that is responsible for my return," Fortune said after the meeting.
Lesson in Politics
Fortune, who returned to work Tuesday, said he intends to work with the board to rebuild the image of a district that many believe has been tarnished by the turmoil and attacks of recent weeks. But he added, "I think I will remain more sensitive to things around me than just schools. I have never pretended to be a politician, but I've learned you cannot ignore the political goings-on around you."
The Rev. Matthew Jefferson, a leader of the recall movement, said after the meeting that while he was pleased with Fortune's reinstatement, the group intends to go ahead with its effort against Dorn.
"It's too late now for things to be fixed this easily," Jefferson said. "They did the right thing tonight, but that's not enough. Too much has happened. We're going ahead with this."
Jefferson has said that if the recall against Dorn is successful, the group intends to launch a recall effort against Vincent.