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Ruling Expected in Flap Over Cortines's Power

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A New York State judge is expected to rule this month on whether the chancellor of the New York City schools has the legal authority to require a community school board to retain a superintendent.

Lawyers for the central board of education and Community School District 9 in the Bronx agreed last week not to take further action in the dispute between Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines and the local board until the judge resolves the underlying legal issues.

Mr. Cortines last month ordered the local board to renew the contract of Felton Johnson, whom the board had voted to oust. In a letter to board members, the chancellor said the troubled district, whose students routinely score among the lowest in the city on reading tests, needed the stability and educational improvements that have been launched by Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Johnson, who became superintendent of the district in spring 1991, made several changes that Chancellor Cortines credited with the district's recent improvement on standardized tests.

"I will not hesitate to use all of my authority to act in what I believe is the best interest of the students, parents, and staff,'' Mr. Cortines wrote in the Feb. 9 letter.

The chancellor gave the local board a week to comply with his order, but instead the board sued the chancellor, asking for an injunction that would void the order.

Carmelo Saez Jr., the president of the District 9 board, said last week that Mr. Johnson was "forced'' on a previous board by then-Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez.

"Two-thirds of this board was not satisfied with the progress kids are making and the money we are paying out for what we're getting,'' Mr. Saez said.

Unusual Intervention

Mr. Cortines's action marked one of the few times a chancellor has intervened in a community district's affairs on educational grounds, rather than over concerns such as political corruption. In addition to low test scores, District 9 has had its share of corruption scandals, and several board members have been arrested in recent years on corruption charges.

Under the agreement reached last week, according to Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for the central board, the district will not seek another superintendent, and the chancellor will not take further action until a judge can decide on the legal issues.

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