Education

Board Overrules Fernandez After He Tells Tales Out of School

By Peter Schmidt — December 16, 1992 3 min read
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Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez of New York City, already embroiled in controversies over AIDS education and a curriculum dealing with homosexuality, last week got a lesson on the dangers of “kiss-and-tell’’ politics.

After news media excerpted passages from the chancellor’s forthcoming autobiography that detailed his youthful drug abuse and blasted board members, Mayor David N. Dinkins, and Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, a furor erupted that appeared to erode his political base during a key test of his power.

The New York City Board of Education voted 6 to 0 with one abstention on Dec. 9 to override Mr. Fernandez’s unprecedented suspension of a community school board over an instructional issue--its refusal to adopt a multicultural curriculum teaching elementary students respect for homosexuals.

Although a district spokesman denied any connection between the board’s vote and its reactions to Mr. Fernandez’s book, three board members had cited the book two days before the vote in telling local newspaper reporters of their misgivings about renewing Mr. Fernandez’s contract when it expires in June.

At a press conference arranged by his publisher, Little, Brown, and Company, Mr. Fernandez early last week apologized for or retracted disparaging remarks about the board members, the Mayor, and the Governor contained in advance proofs of his memoirs that had been sent to the press.

“Obviously, candor and frankness carry with them certain burdens,’' Mr. Fernandez said. “If I offended anyone with my blunt language, I apologize.’'

Dissident Board Reinstated

Luis O. Reyes, who abstained, was the only board member not to approve a resolution ordering Mr. Fernandez to reinstate Community School Board 24 in Queens, which he had suspended early this month after it refused to adopt the “Children of the Rainbow’’ multicultural curriculum.

Mr. Fernandez had asserted that he was forced to suspend the board because it refused even to discuss compromise over the requirement. A lawyer for the local board countered that Mr. Fernandez had overstepped his authority in suspending the board over its decision on a curriculum that community board members perceived as promoting homosexuality.

The city board, in a resolution its members described as a compromise, told Mr. Fernandez to reinstate the community board, but acknowledged his authority to supersede it with respect to the curriculum issue.

The city board also said that if the chancellor overruled the local board again, it would move quickly to decide any appeal of that decision. In the meantime, the board said, the community board may not interfere with the development of the curriculum nor may the chancellor’s staff adopt a curriculum for the district.

Mary A. Cummins, the president of the community board, could not be reached last week for comment.

Mr. Fernandez issued a statement that called the board’s action “disappointing’’ and said “the facts clearly dictated a different result.’'

“By failing to enforce adherence to their policy of promoting tolerance, the members of the central board have left themselves open to serious challenges to their policymaking roles and put in jeopardy their ability to function under the decentralization law,’' Mr. Fernandez said.

On Dec. 10, the chancellor sent the community board a letter giving it until the close of the next business day to meet with members of his staff to seek conciliation.

The letter warned that, if such a meeting does not take place, Mr. Fernandez would supersede the board beginning Dec. 14 and would have his staff develop a multicultural curriculum. He further cautioned that he would suspend the board again if it interfered.

Mayor, Governor Criticized

The portions of Mr. Fernandez’s book, to be published next month, that first received the most attention were those revealing that he regularly snorted and injected heroin in the years after he dropped out of a Harlem high school and before he turned his life around in the Air Force.

Aftershocks in New York politics soon followed, however, as the press excerpted passages that disparaged Mayor Dinkins and various board members and other school officials and described Governor Cuomo as giving low priority to education.

At his press conference, Mr. Fernandez praised the Mayor and Governor and denied ever calling board member Ninfa Segarra a “political prostitute,’' blaming the presence of the characterization in his book on a misunderstanding with his co-writer, John Underwood.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Board Overrules Fernandez After He Tells Tales Out of School

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