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Minneapolis Schools Chief Suspended in Flap Over Finances

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Faced with public outrage over allegations of financial mismanagement, the Minneapolis school board last week suspended Superintendent of Schools Robert J. Ferrera and asked him to resign.

The board announced its unanimous decision to suspend Mr. Ferrera with pay after a four-hour-long closed meeting that focused on an investigation of the district's finances by the district's lawyer.

Several board members interviewed last week said they decided to ask for Mr. Ferrera's resignation after receiving hundreds of phone calls from constituents angered by news reports alleging that the 43,000-student district was financially mismanaged under his watch.

"It probably would have been impossible for him to continue to lead,'' Ann Kaari, the board's chairwoman, said.

Ms. Kaari praised Mr. Ferrera's educational leadership, but said "a media attack'' on the district's finances and operations had caused "an erosion of public confidence'' in his stewardship.

The board voted unanimously to appoint Mitchell Trockman, the district's associate superintendent for elementary and secondary education, as acting superintendent until a replacement for Mr. Ferrera can be found.

Unsettling Settlements

At a press conference he called last week to defend his record, Mr. Ferrera said he would not resign unless the district offered him a satisfactory settlement on his contract, which pays him $104,000 a year and is not due to expire until June 1995.

"They have not given me due process; they have not told me what the charges are so I can have a chance to respond to them, and they have expressed no desire to want to discuss a negotiated settlement,'' Mr. Ferrera said of the board in an interview.

The dispute between the board and Mr. Ferrera erupted last month after news reports revealed that the board planned to offer settlements totaling more than $188,000 to two top business officials whom Mr. Ferrera had asked to resign.

Gerald Menefee, the district's associate superintendent, and Charles Bailey, its facilities director, had been asked to step down after an audit of the district alleged several financial missteps.

Among other problems, the audit alleged that a $7.4 million contract with Honeywell Inc. had been bungled, that the costs of two school-remodeling projects had been miscalculated by a total of more than $2 million, and that cost overruns on another remodeling project had gone undetected and inflated its cost from $650,000 to nearly $1.2 million.

As of late last week, the board had not decided on the settlements.

Public 'Demanding Blood'

Prior to last week's news reports, the board had gone on record in support of the superintendent.

David M. Tilsen, a board member, said that he had thought the district's financial problems were "fixable'' and that Mr. Ferrera had taken adequate steps to address them.

"Few of them resulted in any loss of dollars, and none of them were due to any dishonesty,'' Mr. Tilsen said. Nonetheless, "the public quickly became of the opinion that the district was severely fiscally mismanaged and started demanding blood.''

"I don't think the anger stops at the superintendent,'' Mr. Tilsen added, noting that efforts appear to be under way to unseat members of the board.

Ms. Kaari said the district is "very fiscally solvent'' and has "very high bond ratings.''

"It was a media perception that we are spending taxpayer dollars unwisely,'' she said. "That is not the case.''

But Ann E. Berget, another board member, disputed descriptions of Mr. Ferrera as a victim of the local news media and said, "I personally have very serious questions regarding Dr. Ferrera's management oversight in areas of finance.''

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