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Recall Launched After Sacramento Chief Is Fired

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Four of seven school board members in Sacramento, Calif., are the targets of a heated recall effort after they fired the district's superintendent and provoked a citywide uproar over the state of the schools.

Leaders of the recall campaign said last week that they had collected most of the signatures necessary for a referendum on the four members, who include the current president of the California School Boards Association.

The four members' decision to fire Superintendent Terry Grier over the objections of the other three members came the same day that a city commission released a highly critical report on the 49,000-student district.

The panel, which was assembled by Mayor Joe Serna Jr., blamed fighting among board members for many of the district's troubles.

The school system has the second-highest dropout rate in the state--33 percent--as well as dirty and graffiti-covered school buildings and a dismal track record on reading and math tests, the panel said in its report. It also went as far as recommending possible state intervention.

In an interview last week, Mayor Serna called the four board members "politically dysfunctional" and said they were more interested in micromanaging the schools than in solving problems. The mayor has not formally backed the recall effort; the board's other three members are among those collecting signatures.

"The public arrogance of this board is really pretty amazing," Mr. Serna added. "It's incredibly embarrassing to everybody, [and] it's totally unacceptable to me as mayor of the city."

Divided Board

The four board members voted in a closed session last month to dismiss Mr. Grier, who had been the superintendent in Sacramento just over a year. The three dissenting members refused to meet in the session, said Michelle Masoner, one of the three.

The majority members would not make public their reasons for buying out the superintendent's four-year contract, a move that will cost about $200,000, or roughly 18 months' pay.

Deputy Superintendent Jim Sweeney is now the acting superintendent.

Mr. Grier says the four board members had threatened to fire him as early as his first two weeks on the job because he refused to give their friends and family members preferential treatment in hiring for district positions. Ms. Masoner also said members had fought with the superintendent over his personnel decisions.

"Coming in, I knew it had a reputation as a difficult place" to work, said Mr. Grier, who left the top post in the Akron, Ohio, schools to move to Sacramento. The district has had four superintendents since 1988, including Rudy Crew, who left there to work in Tacoma, Wash., and is now the chancellor of the New York City schools.

Mr. Grier has challenged the board members' vote to fire him, and his lawyer says the board violated the state's open-meetings law when it met behind closed doors to oust the superintendent. Mr. Grier said his lawyer has asked that the board respond to the complaint about the firing by the middle of this month and either vote again in a public meeting or reinstate the superintendent.

Meanwhile, Ms. Masoner, Tom Griffin, and President Mary Wimberly have joined the effort to oust their colleagues from the board.

"We have nothing to lose; it's gotten as bad as it can get," Ms. Masoner said, adding that the four members often "picked fights with the rest of the board and the superintendent" during meetings.

Three of those facing recall--Louise Perez, Ida Russell, and Gaspar Garcia--were attending a meeting of the California School Boards Association in Long Beach last week and did not return messages left for them there or calls to their homes and offices. Ms. Perez is the president of the state association.

In a telephone interview last week, Virgil Price, the fourth member who voted to oust the superintendent, declined to discuss the firing or related events.

Lacking the Basics

Organizers of the recall campaign hoped to make this week's deadline for petitions. They need about 16,000 signatures on each of the four petitions to get a recall vote on the ballot in March. As of last week, they estimated that they had 12,000 names on each list.

The mayoral commission's report has fanned fires in Sacramento.

Top school officials said the panel's recommendations were on target, and they say too much time and effort has been spent on everything but school reform. Among other complaints, community members have criticized the district's decision to build a multimillion-dollar office complex when the city's schools are run-down and short of supplies.

The 14-member panel--made up primarily of business leaders and professionals--found that the district is "wholly political at the top and paralyzed throughout," said Phil Angelides, a local developer who co-chaired the group.

It also pointed out that many schools lack the basics--a safe environment, adequate books and supplies, and clean facilities, said Bob Trigg, the other co-chairman and a former superintendent of the Elk Grove district south of Sacramento.

"It doesn't take a whole lot of effort to make sure the bathrooms are clean and there's toilet paper in them," Mayor Serna added.

He and others, however, said it was the board's intransigence that has let the situation spin out of control.

The mayor said he has not ruled out the need for state intervention, though state schools chief Delaine Eastin nixed that idea last month, saying she would instead send in a team to help the district. Mr. Serna, meanwhile, is working with state legislators to draft a bill that would leave open the option of state intervention, if the district's troubles persist.

"We've all turned our backs and let it happen," the mayor said. "It just got to the breaking point."

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