Fernandez Ousted As Schools Chief In New York City

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Consumed by the heat of controversies he had helped fuel, Joseph A. Fernandez last week watched the New York City board of education vote to end his tumultuous three-year tenure as the chancellor of the nation's largest school district.

The seven-member board, which remained divided as much of the city's power structure appeared to choose sides around it, on Feb. 10 voted 4 to 3 to tell Mr. Fernandez his contract will not be extended after it expires in June.

The board's decision technically could be revisited, but it was described by board members and school officials as final.

Coming on the heels of the retirement last fall of Superintendent William R. Anton of Los Angeles and the ouster last month of General Superintendent Ted D. Kimbrough of Chicago, the New York board's decision leaves the nation's three largest school districts in the market for new chief executive officers.

Michael Casserly, the interim executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, called last week's decision "a travesty for the children in New York City.''

The New York vote signaled the end of a tenure that saw the launching of bold initiatives and the foundering of fairly routine policy decisions in storms of debate.

Last week, observers were crediting Mr. Fernandez with trimming waste and bureaucracy in the school system, developing 50 small, innovative high schools, and advancing the cause of school-based management.

The chancellor also was blamed, however, for alienating potential allies with political missteps and a blunt management style, and for inciting an uprising by parents and religious leaders with his stands on such divisive social issues as sex education, the distribution of condoms in schools, and the teaching of tolerance for homosexuals.

"It was pretty clear that those who supported Mr. Fernandez tended to see him as a reformer and a leader and an innovator, and those who opposed him tended to see him as a heavy-handed sponsor of cultural reforms that they did not like,'' said Nelson C. Smith, a vice president of the New York City Partnership, an organization of business and civic leaders concerned with improving schools.

Robert F. Wagner, a former school board chairman who now heads a citizens' commission on reforming the governance of the city's schools, last week predicted that the ouster of Mr. Fernandez would lend momentum to efforts in the state legislature to change the selection and composition of the board.

In the meantime, Mr. Wagner said, the process of replacing Mr. Fernandez, to be carried out by a divided board in the midst of a Mayoral campaign, runs "a very real danger'' of getting "caught up in the racial and ethnic and special-interest divisions of the city's politics.''

Good Intentions, Bad Calls

In a statement issued after the board's vote, Mr. Fernandez said: "Yes, I have made mistakes, but I have fought for children. I will always put their welfare ahead of political or 'special interests.'''

Asserting that education "has always been on the top of my agenda,'' the chancellor vowed to continue, until his contract expires on June 30, to devote his full attention to his job and the tasks of negotiating a contract with the city's teachers and securing more federal, state, and city funds for the schools.

"This is not the end of the school year,'' he said. "Our children have months of instruction left.''

Carol A. Gresser, the only board member who had been regarded as a potential swing vote before Wednesday's board meeting, last week expressed regret over her vote against Mr. Fernandez.

"I think he has done wonderful things, and I like him,'' she said after the board's meeting.

Nevertheless, Ms. Gresser, the board's representative from Queens, said that "the sensitive issues that have been addressed and the way they have been addressed have polarized the educational community and the city.''

"Perhaps,'' she said, "we need new leadership to bring peace.''

Peter F. Vallone, the speaker of the New York City Council, described the board's vote as in the best interest of the city's children.

"I hope the lesson is clear,'' he added. "The next chancellor must concentrate on the basics and involve parents in the education of their children.''

Mayor David N. Dinkins, who was a key backer of Mr. Fernandez, said in a statement that he was "distressed'' by the board's decision. "Regrettably, for some of its members, sound educational policy took a back seat to parochial politics,'' the Mayor said.

Backers Target Swing Vote

Mr. Fernandez said he had refused an offer one week before the Feb. 10 meeting to withdraw from consideration for an extension of his contract.

The 4-to-3 split reflected in the vote had been predicted for weeks, with the chancellor winning the support of the board's two Mayoral appointees, H. Carl McCall and Westina L. Matthews, and from Luis O. Reyes, the member appointed by Manhattan's borough president.

Clearly estranged from Mr. Fernandez were three other members appointed by their borough presidents: Michael J. Petrides of Staten Island, Ninfa V. Segarra of the Bronx, and Irene H. Impellizzeri of Brooklyn.

Ms. Gresser of Queens, who had made known her opposition to extending the chancellor's contract just a week earlier, was made the focus of an intensive lobbying effort by Mr. Fernandez and his backers. Claire Shulman, the Queens borough president who had appointed her, also received hundreds of calls.

Mayor Dinkins, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo of New York, State Commissioner of Education Thomas Sobol, and Saul Weprin, the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, were among the public officials who voiced support for Mr. Fernandez.

U.S. Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., the dean of the state's Congressional delegation, sent a letter to the board expressing his "wholehearted support'' for Mr. Fernandez. He warned that the chancellor's removal would "send a terrible signal to Congress'' that could undermine efforts to secure more funding for the city's schools and to recover $62 million in federal Chapter 1 aid withheld from the city after a 1990 U.S. Census count that city officials considered flawed.

Mr. Fernandez also received backing from the leadership of several education organizations and community groups, including the United Federation of Teachers and the New York City Partnership. The partnership said that the city "must have continuity of leadership'' if it is to continue to improve schools.

Religious Say He Strayed

But, just as public rallies were held last week in behalf of Mr. Fernandez, rallies also were held to call for his ouster.

During a two-day period before the board vote, the office of Ms. Shulman, the Queens borough president, received about 1,330 calls opposed to a new contract and about 230 in favor, her spokesman reported.

As a result of his stands in favor of distributing condoms in schools and teaching tolerance for homosexuals in the context of a multicultural curriculum, Mr. Fernandez encountered especially strong opposition from social conservatives, evangelical Christians, and Roman Catholics.

Howard L. Hurwitz, the chairman of the board of directors of the conservative Family Defense Council, lobbied extensively for the chancellor's removal.

Mr. Hurwitz described as "nothing more than pro-gay and lesbian propaganda'' the multicultural "Children of the Rainbow'' curriculum Mr. Fernandez had pushed despite the objections of some community school boards.

"The chancellor has chosen to take a path which, I think, people of many religious backgrounds have found offensive,'' said Msgr. Vincent D. Breen, the superintendent of education for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens.

'Maybe We Didn't Deserve You'

On Feb. 9, the day before the board vote, Ms. Gresser, along with Ms. Impellizzeri, Ms. Segarra, and Mr. Petrides, formally signed on to the resolution not to renew the contract.

But many observers said the fate of the chancellor appeared sealed in early December, when advance copies of Mr. Fernandez's memoirs, Tales Out of School, were released.

In the book, he expressed stinging opinions on various local officials and board members, in particular calling Ms. Segarra a "political prostitute.''

Soon after, even as his name was being mentioned in the search for a new U.S. Secretary of Education, Mr. Fernandez was harshly rebuffed by the board, which voted 6 to 0 to reinstate a Queens school board he had suspended over its refusal to adopt the "Rainbow'' curriculum.

In a last-ditch effort at compromise, Mayor Dinkins held a press conference Feb. 9 to float a plan to extend Mr. Fernandez's contract by one year in order to delay the search for a new chancellor until after the Mayoral election next fall.

Any two board members could have voted that day to postpone the decision on the contract for 24 hours. Mr. Fernandez, however, urged them to move ahead on the issue, which the board had to decide by Feb. 15.

Seventy-nine speakers stepped to the microphone--and occasionally had to be led away from it--during a raucous, five-hour board meeting punctuated by chants and boos.

After the board made its decision shortly before 3 P.M., Mr. McCall, its president, turned to Mr. Fernandez and said, "Good luck, God bless you. Maybe we didn't deserve you.''

'A Great Loss'

Sandra Feldman, the president of the U.F.T., issued a statement saying the removal of Mr. Fernandez "will destabilize a system badly in need of continuity and jeopardize the reforms now under way.''

Mr. Wagner called the departure of Mr. Fernandez "a great loss,'' and said the board's decision "will be seen as one of the greatest mistakes in New York's recent history.''

Several school officials and education-group leaders interviewed last week questioned whether the district will find a willing and well-qualified replacement.

Mr. Casserly of the Great City Schools said, "Cities need to learn that when they find themselves good superintendents, they should stick with them and let them do the job.''

Vol. 12, Issue 21

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