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N.Y.C. Chancellor Suspends Board Over Curriculum

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Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez of New York City last week suspended a Queens school board for its refusal to adopt a multicultural curriculum that teaches respect for homosexuals.

Mr. Fernandez suspended Community School Board 24 in Queens "until further notice'' and appointed three members of his staff to oversee the board's responsibilities and help bring the district into compliance with the multicultural-curriculum requirement.

In a letter to members of the board, Mr. Fernandez asserted that he was forced to suspend the panel because it had refused to accept the districtwide curriculum requirement and had rebuffed his efforts at compromise.

"Your district is the only district that has refused to allow your community superintendent to engage in any instructional dialogue with us, nor has your board made any effort to balance local concerns about curriculum with central board of education policy,'' Mr. Fernandez wrote.

"Apparently,'' he said, "you prefer to publish inaccurate letters from afar, rather than to discuss the issue face-to-face in any meaningful way.''

Personnel in the Board 24 office last week said they were under instructions not to take messages for board members or to provide information that would assist members of the media or public in reaching the board members or their lawyer.

But John P. Hale, a lawyer representing the District 24 board, said members planned to appeal the chancellor's decision to New York City's central school board by the end of last week.

"What we see having occurred here,'' Mr. Hale said, "is that a civil servant, who is the chancellor, has suspended an elected board over a difference in philosophical approach to curriculum.''

"We have two questions. One is a question of law--who decides on the curriculum in a decentralized system,'' Mr. Hale said. "The second is a philosophical question of who molds attitudes and beliefs with reference to behavior.''

Bigger Power Struggle

Mr. Fernandez's decision to suspend the District 24 board marked the first time a chancellor has suspended a board over a curriculum issue since the decentralization of New York City school governance began 22 years ago.

Although Mr. Fernandez previously has suspended local boards for corruption or mismanagement, his latest decision represents a new assertion of authority that could test both his power and his relationship with the city school board.

Mr. Hale last week said he was optimistic in appealing the chancellor's decision to the city school board because that panel has never voted to approve the specific curriculum under contention and generally has been supportive of local boards.

Mr. Fernandez's clash with the District 24 board has occurred in the context of a much broader power struggle. Two weeks ago, a local newspaper report, which he denied, said he planned to leave the district when his contract expires in June because he was frustrated by poor relations with the school board and city hall. (See Education Week, Dec. 2, 1992.)

The central board, meanwhile, faces the threat of state legislation to overhaul its basic structure after frustrating Mayor David N. Dinkins and local teachers' union officials with its frequent quarreling over sex education. (See Education Week, Nov. 11, 1992.)

'Children of the Rainbow'

The primary source of contention between Mr. Fernandez and the District 24 board is "Children of the Rainbow,'' the city's 433-page multicultural-curriculum guide for 1st-grade teachers. The document, which primarily encourages tolerance for different racial, ethnic, and religious groups, also contains sections promoting tolerance for homosexual family units. (See Education Week, Oct. 21, 1992.)

In a letter sent last summer to District 24 parents, Mary A. Cummins, the board's president, said the board "resents lumping legitimate minorities,'' such as Hispanics and blacks, together with homosexuals.

"We will not accept two people of the same sex engaged in deviant sex practices as 'family,' '' Ms. Cummins said.

Four of the city's 31 other community boards originally refused to adopt the anti-bias curriculum. But they later complied after Mr. Fernandez permitted curriculum revisions that, among other changes, allowed them to postpone discussions of homosexuality until later grades. (See Education Week, Nov. 25, 1992.)

Mr. Fernandez said in his letter to the District 24 board that he had tried to reach agreement with its members as well, offering meetings, technical assistance, and even mediation.

"Each of my efforts has been rejected by your school board, accompanied by statements that are inaccurate, misleading, and now tend to border on the bizarre,'' Mr. Fernandez wrote.

Mr. Hale said the board simply has told the chancellor that it has a curriculum in place and believes any discussion of homosexuality should be left to parents.

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