Inglewood school board members have voted to dismiss a former high school principal who is under investigation in connection with alleged misappropriation of school district funds.
Though the board did not announce the name of the employee it voted to dismiss, numerous district sources said the employee was Leonard Matthews, the politically active former principal of Hillcrest Continuation High School.
Eight months ago, Matthews was abruptly placed on paid leave by former Supt. Rex Fortune, and police began investigating allegations that Matthews misappropriated school funds, according to police and district officials.
Matthews was later reassigned to a position in the district's central office, where he now works. District sources said Supt. George McKenna, who took over at the beginning of this month, insisted that the board take action to end months of political struggle over Matthews' fate.
Board President Caroline Coleman, a staunch defender and political ally of Matthews, cast the sole vote last week against dismissal. Board members Zyra McCloud and Larry Aubry voted in favor of the recommendation, and board member Lois Hill-Hale abstained. Under board rules, an absention counts as a "yes" vote.
District employees, parents and others said Matthews has worked diligently on the election campaigns of local politicians and has close ties to Coleman and Aubry, which made Aubry's vote to fire Matthews especially difficult.
Matthews has retained attorney Johnnie L. Cochran. Matthews refused to comment after the vote and referred questions to Cochran, who said in an interview after the meeting that he would "vehemently resist" any attempt to dismiss Matthews.
"We feel very strongly that when the facts are brought out he will be vindicated," Cochran said. He said he will sue the district if necessary.
Cochran defended board member Coleman in 1985 when she was accused of misusing district funds, a charge of which she was acquitted.
Last Monday's board agenda said the recommendation for dismissal was based on allegations of "dishonesty, immoral conduct, allegations of theft of district funds and falsification of payroll records" by the unnamed employee.
The vote initiates a dismissal process that permits the employee to request a hearing and affords other procedural safeguards.
Inglewood Police Chief Raymond Johnson said that the police investigation of Matthews, which began early this year, has been slowed by difficulty in obtaining financial records from a bank.
Although McCloud called for disclosure of the name of the employee being dismissed, Coleman and other board members insisted that the name not be publicly announced.
Personnel Director Peter Butler told board members that names have been made public in previous cases by inserting them into a blank space provided on the agenda at the time of the vote. But Coleman said after the meeting that she was unsure of district policy regarding confidentiality.
In an interview, former board member William Draper said there was no doubt what was required when he served on the board from 1983 to 1987.
'Those Are the Rules'
"We always used either a name or an employee number," Draper said. "Those are the rules."
Draper expressed concern that board members had created a legal loophole for Matthews by withholding his name. And Cochran said the board's failure to announce the name may indeed become an issue.
"It could create a problem," Cochran said. "They may not be on strong legal grounds. It leads to a lot of innuendo."
McKenna, who did not attend Monday's meeting because of an out-of-town commitment, said last week that he would ask district lawyers to determine whether the board should make the name of the dismissed employee public.
Board attorney Artis Grant said last Wednesday that he had not yet talked with McKenna. But he said past board practice has been to make public the name of an employee at the time of a vote.