Ruling Upholding Superintendent's Ouster Seen Blow to Private Aid

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A court ruling upholding a New York City school district's decision to oust its reform-oriented superintendent is likely to cost the troubled Bronx system badly needed foundation and corporate support, observers said last week.

The decision clarifies the power of the city's schools chancellor to oversee local districts. While chancellors can review the qualifications of candidates, they cannot veto school districts' final selections for superintendent, the court ruled.

The outgoing superintendent, Felton Johnson, had attracted the support of a major corporation and a foundation to a district with a history of corruption and minimal outside assistance.

Since 1991, Community School District 9, which routinely posts some of the lowest reading and mathematics scores in the city, has been the site of a $1 million program backed by the International Business Machines Corporation.

But the project, one of the largest corporate partnerships in the city, is due to end soon and probably will not be renewed, said Stanley S. Litow, the company's director of corporate support.

A project funded by the Charles Hayden Foundation linking schools and community organizations also is due to wind up at the end of the school year.

"There will be a hesitation on the part of the board to put any more money into District 9 at the present time,'' said Gilda Wray, the foundation's vice president.

Without Mr. Johnson's leadership, she added, "one doesn't have any assurance that the reforms or progress that is being slowly made in that district will continue.''

Delineating Power

In defending its decision to remove Mr. Johnson, the Bronx school board argued that achievement had not substantially improved under his leadership, which began in 1991 with the strong backing of then-Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez. The board told Mr. Johnson in December that his contract would not be renewed.

In response, the current chancellor, Ramon C. Cortines, in February ordered the board to retain Mr. Johnson for another year, citing "impressive gains'' for some schools on test scores.

District 9 sued Mr. Cortines, arguing that the city's decentralized governance system expressly gives community school boards the power to hire and fire superintendents.

In her March 25 ruling, Judge Lorraine Backal of the Bronx County state supreme court agreed.

"It appears that Chancellor Cortines's actions are motivated by a well-intentioned and sincere desire to improve the educational performance'' of the District 9 schools, Judge Backal wrote. "However, no matter how laudable his motives may be, he may not achieve them by means which exceed the authority granted him by the legislature.''

Dominick Fusco, the lawyer for District 9, praised the ruling.

"It clearly delineates the power of the local school board and chancellor as far as employment of a superintendent,'' Mr. Fusco said. "It's the first time there's been a definitive ruling on the power to employ a superintendent.''

In a statement, Mr. Cortines said, "The delicate balance between decentralization and central authority should not preclude the chancellor--the one ultimately accountable for academic achievement in all schools--from acting in the best interests of children.''

The chancellor was more successful last month in persuading another Bronx board with a history of corruption, District 12, to retain its superintendent.

'Very, Very Hard'

The ruling in the District 9 case allows the board to hire another superintendent. But the district is not likely to again attract major outside support, said Beth Lief, the executive director of the New York City Fund for Public Education.

"It will be very, very hard,'' she said. "The tragic thing is that [Mr. Felton] made some inroads.''

Mr. Litow, who served as a deputy chancellor under Mr. Fernandez, said I.B.M.'s partnership with District 9 was scheduled to end in June, regardless of the outcome of the fight over the superintendent.

"What was unique was I.B.M.'s willingness to get involved in such a difficult community,'' Mr. Litow said. "Had the leadership remained the same, there would have been discussions with I.B.M. that would have included what else might be done.''

But further involvement in the district would depend upon the "interest, commitment, and dedication by the school staff,'' he added.

District 9 board members have criticized the project, which focused on management, strategic planning, and teacher training and included installation of computers.

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