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Despite Cuomo's Support, Fernandez Faces Uphill Battle in Gaining Reforms

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By Ann Bradley

In his State of the State address Jan. 3, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York threw his support behind two proposals that are top priorities for New York City's new schools chancellor.

For Joseph A. Fernandez, then in his first week on the job, the Governor's support for eliminating the "building tenure" enjoyed by some city principals and dropping the district's century-old screening board for new teachers was "the most welcome news he's heard in weeks," according to the school chief's press secretary, James S. Vlasto.

But even with the popular Governor's support, Mr. Fernandez faces an uphill battle in attempting to gain approval of the proposals in the state legislature.

In seeking to eliminate the provision in state law that gives elementary- and intermediate-school principals in New York City tenure in their particular schools, Mr. Fernandez is adding his voice to those of many who have unsuccessfully sought the change in the past.

The chancellor also favors abolishing the district's four-member Board of Examiners, which was created as an impartial mechanism to test and rank prospective teachers and supervisors.

Governor Cuomo pledged to propose legislation on both issues "to provide the new chancellor with greater flexibility in the assignment of staff and the availability of a steady pool of qualified teachers."

Legislation to do away with the controversial practice of "building tenure" was introduced in the legislature in 1988 and 1989. The policy applies to the schools governed by the city's 32 community school boards.

The chancellor has the authority to transfer principals only in the city's high schools, which are governed by the central board of education.

Union Opposition

The most vociferous opposition to eliminating building tenure has come from the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the city principals' union.

Donald Singer, president of the union, said the tenure protection is a contractual matter that must be negotiated with the principals' union, not changed by legislation. The union's contract does not expire until February 1991.

The tenure provision, which the union refers to as protection against "involuntary transfer," is necessary to shield principals from improper community pressure, Mr. Singer said.

"What's the sense of moving one supervisor or teacher who is inefficient, inappropriate, or incompetent from one location to another?" Mr. Singer asked. Instead, the union has proposed developing an academy that would retrain supervisors who are having trouble on the job, he said.

Dissatisfaction with the Board of Examiners dates back two decades, but legislative attempts that began as early as 1984 have failed to modify or eliminate it.

Mr. Cuomo also called last year for elimination of the board, which critics say duplicates the state's existing licensing process and makes it difficult for the city to hire enough qualified teachers.

The Assembly passed legislation to eliminate the board in 1988 and 1989, but a similar bill was blocked in the Senate.

The board, which also conducts background checks on prospective employees, came under fire last week from a mayoral commission investigating corruption in the schools. The commission concluded that the board had licensed "a known sex offender with a history of child molestation."

Jack Bloomfield, chairman of the board, said the teacher's FBI records did not reflect his criminal record.

Scrutiny of System

Complicating discussion of any new legislative efforts is the fact that a special state commission is just beginning to examine the governance of New York City's schools.

The Marchi commission, named for its chairman, state Senator John Marchi, is not due to make recommendations until December.

Some observers have noted that if legislators consider eliminating building tenure, they must also decide who will be given the authority to transfer school personnel. Such decisions are unlikely to be made until the commission has had a chance to make its recommendations, they suggest.

Patricia Stryker, a legislative representative for the board of education, said Robert F. Wagner Jr., president of the school board, had recently urged members of the commission to work toward eliminating the Board of Examiners during this legislative session.

Some commission members, she said, appeared to favor such a show of support for the new chancellor.

"There is a groundswell of support here for Dr. Fernandez," Mr. Vlasto said. "Obviously, some legislators haven't gotten the message yet, but hopefully they will."

In his first weeks on the job, Mr. Fernandez removed a Brooklyn high-school principal who will be charged with incompetence. He also announced that 218 positions in the central office will be eliminated as part of a restructuring that is expected to save $20 million.

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