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Cleveland School Officials Move To Avert State Takeover

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Members of the Cleveland school board and the district's superintendent last week appeared to be nearing an agreement to end their long-running feud and avert a threatened state takeover of the school system.

In a document filed in federal court in Cleveland last month, state education officials said they would "move to eliminate the conflict and place the administration of the district in other hands" if the parties did not resolve their differences.

Among the conditions set by the state were that the school board drop its threat to fire the superintendent, Alfred D. Tutela, and that Mr. Tutela drop a lawsuit he filed last year against four board members.

But in a broader sense, state officials "would like the parties to eliminate their bickering and make a serious attempt to work on behalf of students," said Robert L. Moore, assistant superintendent for the state.

The public feuding has been "about as bad as it gets," said Mr. Moore. "They cannot have the students' best interests at heart when they've got that much dissension going on."

The state's unprecedented threat to take over the ailing school system came in response to a request for assistance in resolving the dispute from U.S. District Judge Frank Battisti, who oversees Cleveland's desegregation case as well as the lawsuit filed by Mr. Tutela.

Judge's Key Role

The state does not currently have the legal authority to assume control of the Cleveland school system, but could ask Judge Battisti to grant such powers by arguing that they are needed to ensure desegregation in the district, Mr. Moore said.

The state, which together with the local board is a defendant in the desegregation case, has previously been granted unusual powers by Judge Battisti to monitor and enforce the district's desegregation efforts.

Mr. Moore said Mr. Tutela's continued employment with the district is considered an important factor in the district's ability to meet its desegregation duties, partly because earlier efforts were hampered by frequent turnover in the superintendent's post during the 1980's.

But differences over how and when the district can seek an end to court supervision have long been a key source of tension between Mr. Tutela and the school board, some of whose members campaigned for election vowing to end forced busing of students.

Their public feuding escalated last year when desegregation and Mr. Tutela's performance became the main issues in a pitched school board race. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1989.)

Intervention Welcomed

Stanley E. Tolliver, the board's president, said he "welcomed" the state's intervention in the dispute, and that the board's disagreements with Mr. Tutela are based "strictly on his performance," not on his views about desegregation.

While saying that the board will rescind a resolution stating its intention to fire Mr. Tutela "at the earliest possible date" if an agreement is reached, the board president also hinted that the superintendent may not serve the full 18 months remaining on his contract.

"We are prepared to work with him or whoever is in that post," he said.

The Miami Herald has reported that Mr. Tutela is a candidate to fill the Dade County superintendent's post recently vacated by Joseph A. Fernandez, who became New York City's schools chancellor at the beginning of this year.

Mr. Tutela was in Florida last week and could not be reached for comment, according to John Hearston, a district spokesman.

Lawyers Declared 'Winners'

"The only real winners to this point have been the lawyers for the superintendent and the board," whose fees could reach as high as $100,000, said Gary Kucinich, a newly elected board member.

Newly elected Mayor Michael R. White, who campaigned for the office with a pledge to provide leadership for improving the city's schools, last month announced the formation of a commission to examine and propose solutions for the school system's ills.

The state will also be "monitoring [the district's actions] much more closely," said Mr. Moore.

The feuding has continued for so long it has prompted the city's major daily newspaper, The Plain Dealer, recently to abandon its repeated calls for reason and run an editorial entitled "All my school board members"--a biting reference to the twists and turns in the plot of a popular televised soap opera.

"Can school board members get amnesia to make them forget about the ill will and hurtful politics of the past and truly take up the cause of the city's young?" the editorial concluded. "Is brain surgery the only solution? For answers to these and other questions, keep watching ..."

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