School Superintendent Could Be Barred From Meetings : Education: Centinela board changes superintendent's job description and scraps anti-dropout program.


Simmering conflict between Centinela Valley Union High School District trustees and Supt. McKinley Nash finally became public Tuesday as the board's Latino majority and the black administrator staked out opposing positions on school board policy, among them the reassignment of an outspoken black principal and the scrapping of a nationally renowned anti-dropout program.

In a quick succession of actions that drew loud criticism from many sections of the standing-room-only audience, the board voted to eliminate Jobs for Centinela Graduates--a work-transition program supported by Nash--and to change the superintendent's job description so the board could exclude him from meetings and closed sessions.

Both actions came on 3-1 votes with Trustee Pam Sturgeon--the only Anglo board member among four Latinos--dissenting. Trustee Michael Escalante was ill.

Toward the end of the meeting, after Nash had given the board a letter opposing the change in his job description, he left his usual place beside the trustees. In a moment of drama that embodied the rift at the top levels of the district, he walked to the podium that faces the audience and spoke in support of Hawthorne Principal Kenneth Crowe, whom the board has ordered reassigned at the end of the school year.

"The principal of Hawthorne High School was reassigned without anybody asking for my recommendation . . . nor have they asked for any formal evaluation of the principal," Nash said over the applause of many in the audience. "I know no reason for the reassignment of the principal of Hawthorne High School. All I know about Kenny Crowe is that he's a growing, young intellectual, an able young man who runs a big high school . . . (and who) has been an excellent administrator."

Trustees have declined to address Crowe's status, citing board policy against discussing personnel matters in public.

Nash's remarks represent the first time Crowe's status in the district has been addressed in public, though black community members have peppered the board with requests to explain Crowe's reassignment.

The racially diverse district has seen tensions rise in recent years as the student population has gone from being predominantly Anglo to 53% Latino, with the balance split almost evenly among blacks, Anglos and others. The district's faculty is largely Anglo, and 31% of the administrators are black.

Tensions came to head this spring after the reassignment and subsequent resignation of Crowe, which prompted two student walkouts in early March. Crowe filed a complaint with the Fair Housing and Employment Commission and has since asked the school board to rescind his resignation, which is effective June 30. Instead, the board ordered him placed on medical leave, even though he claims he is not ill.

Despite a large audience and vocal group of protesters, Tuesday's board meeting was the first one in several weeks that did not dissolve into chaotic shouting matches or have to be adjourned early.

While trustees discussed altering a section of the regulations that include the superintendent's job description, Nash distributed his three-page letter that questioned the legality of the board's action. Board members never discussed or explained why they sought the option to exclude Nash from some of the board's discussions. He has been superintendent since 1984.

The decision to drop Jobs for Centinela Graduates, which is modeled after the national Jobs for American Graduates program, came a week after a state study showing that Centinela Valley had the highest dropout rate in the South Bay. Between 1986 and 1989, the district's dropout rate rose to 29.1% from 28.7%.

However, district officials at the meeting and last week credited the 9-month-old program with significantly reducing the number of dropouts in the past year. Nash even distributed a sheaf of laudatory letters and reports about the program at Centinela.

Nevertheless, several trustees said financial considerations and evidence that the program duplicates the efforts of another work experience program at the two high schools prompted them to cancel it. The program cost the district $322,000 last year.

Although the outlay is a small part of the district's $28-million budget, Trustee Jackie Carrera said, it is money that could be used to pay for more teachers or to implement a 10-point plan to ease racial tensions in the district.

But Sturgeon disagreed. "We have to keep our students in school," she said. "I feel we cannot really judge this program the first nine months. I don't think we've given the program or the students a fair opportunity."

Later, during the board's brief discussion of the superintendent's job description, Sturgeon again dissented from her colleagues. "I do not support this. . . . I have reservations on the procedures we are following tonight," she said.

The change involved a section that requires the superintendent's attendance at all board meetings. Nash maintained that the section gives him not only the responsibility but the right to attend those meetings.

Before the vote, several speakers, including former Trustee Ann Birdsall, questioned the legality of the change and urged board members to discuss it further with their attorney before making a decision.

"Surely you cannot expect for Dr. McKinley Nash to be stripped of his manhood, and his pride as a man and as superintendent . . . without fighting," said Zyra McCloud, who chairs a panel on education for the South Bay chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. ". . . You're saying you do not have any confidence in this superintendent."

In a letter addressed to Board President Ruth Morales, Nash said he was confident that "after reviewing the relevant case law . . . you will agree that my job description cannot be changed without my consent.

"I am willing to discuss revising my job description as long as the Board is willing to do so at a public meeting of the Board. . . . (But) I would like a list of the reasons why the board wants to change my job description."

But the board members who supported the change ignored requests that they explain the reason for their decision and voted for the change.

In an interview Wednesday, Carrera declined to explain the board's decision, saying, "We're treading on another personnel thing."

Before the meeting, about 25 students carrying colorful signs that said "future employees or future bums" circled the board room chanting "Keep JAG alive!"

Earlier, a smaller group of students, along with community activist Don Jackson, spent 30 minutes picketing outside Sturgeon's home in Lawndale.

The demonstrators said that although they appreciate Sturgeon's support of the job program, they were there to protest the treatment of Crowe, as well as minority teachers and students in the district. They said they planned to take their protests to the homes of other trustees in the future.

The demonstration was videotaped by friends of Jackson, as well as sheriff's deputies who also attended and filmed the board meeting.

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