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Cortines Resigns--Only To Be Talked Back--in 'Close Call'

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The New York City school system narrowly averted a crisis early last week when Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines withdrew the resignation he had submitted two days before in a dispute with Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The disagreement--settled during an intensive weekend of negotiations with the aid of Gov. Mario M. Cuomo--centered on Mayor Giuliani's proposed appointment of an independent monitor to review school board expenditures.

Mr. Giuliani had also pressed the chancellor to fire two senior staff members working for the board, school officials said.

The situation temporarily threw the nation's largest school system into turmoil and tested the leadership skills and popularity of Mr. Cortines, whose eight months in office had been characterized by relative calm.

But observers said the close call also revealed the deep divisions that exist between school leaders and the Mayor when city hall controls the education budget.

"The collision between the chancellor and Mayor shows that dependent school districts do not work as a form of government,'' asserted Noreen Connell, the executive director of the Educational Priorities Panel, a coalition of civic groups.

Officials in the Mayor's office, on the other hand, blamed the dispute on the district leadership's ties to "an old bureaucracy'' unwilling to reconsider how it spends school funds.

"This isn't a budgetary fight; this is over how money is being used,'' said Manny Papir, a spokesman for Mr. Giuliani.

Central Office Targeted

The Mayor and schools chief had been at odds since Mr. Giuliani announced earlier this year that he was seeking deep cuts in the district's central bureaucracy. (See Education Week, Feb. 16, 1994.)

The city, facing an estimated $2.5 billion budget gap, proposed $332 million in education-spending cuts and the elimination of 2,500 positions in the central office, which employs about 6,300 people, Mr. Papir said.

Frank Sobrino, a spokesman for the chancellor, said Mr. Cortines agreed to eliminate 350 budgeted vacancies and 700 filled positions.

But the schools chief resisted further budget demands, prompting the Mayor to announce he would appoint Herman Badillo, who ran unsuccessfully for city comptroller on Mr. Giuliani's ticket last fall, to review the board's expenditures.

School officials said the Mayor also suggested that Mr. Cortines fire John H. Beckman, a school board spokesman who worked for former Mayor David N. Dinkins, and Leonard Hellenbrand, the board's longtime budget director.

After several tense meetings at which the Mayor reportedly gave the chancellor an ultimatum--accept the monitor or fire the board employees--Mr. Cortines delivered on his resignation threats.

The schools chief "resented a monitor being placed over him as though he couldn't be trusted or had done something wrong,'' Mr. Sobrino explained.

Carol Gresser, the president of the board, asked Governor Cuomo to try to break the dispute, which threatened to force yet another expensive and difficult search for a chancellor.

David Egner, a spokesman for the Governor, said Mr. Cuomo intervened because he feared there would be widespread disruptions in the schools if the resignation was made final.

Several local groups were organizing demonstrations in support of the chancellor or calling for children to stay out of school in protest, Mr. Egner added.

'Walking Over the Precipice'

Under the chancellor's agreement with the Mayor, the schools will cut a total of 2,500 positions from the central office and the administration of the community school districts, Mr. Sobrino said.

Mr. Badillo will review school spending under the supervision of the city investigations department.

Governor Cuomo's intervention "saved us from walking over the precipice,'' said Jon Moscow, the executive director of the Parents Coalition for Education. "But now that the chancellor's here, the problems still remain.''

Mr. Cortines--who assumed the post last fall after Joseph A. Fernandez was ousted over his support for controversial school programs--now faces the difficult task of executing the Mayor's budget orders, which some local groups have called random and heavy handed.

Budget cuts should be made "department by department, bureau by bureau, division by division, instead of saying, 'We're going to cut X number of positions,''' said Donald Singer, the president of the Council of Supervisors and Administrators.

All seven seats on the school board are up for appointment this summer. Mr. Giuliani has authority to fill two of the slots.

Serving Two Masters

Observers also said they fear more flare-ups between the Mayor and chancellor as long as city hall has financial control.

In New York State's five largest school systems, boards operate autonomously but are fiscally dependent on city government.

"Disputes often occur between municipal governments and school boards'' in those systems, leading to "finger pointing and distrust,'' said Stephen K. Allinger, the executive director of the New York State Special Commission on Educational Structure, Policies, and Practices, a task force appointed by Governor Cuomo to review the public schools.

"The state and city have vastly different expectations for what the boards should do, so they're trying to serve both masters,'' added Mr. Allinger, whose panel urged last year that the districts be freed from the cities' fiscal control.

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