INGLEWOOD — With a potentially lame-duck school board majority passing an eleventh-hour extension of his contract and the new school board majority vowing to oust him, school district Supt. Rex Fortune has found himself caught in a political maelstrom.
Hired two years ago by the current school board majority to turn around the troubled Inglewood school system, Fortune, 43, admits that he has alienated key factions in the intensely political school district, including at least two trustees, the teachers' union, and the mayor.
Those factions, in last week's election, succeeded in shifting power from the current board majority to one that backs their own agenda--an agenda that apparently lists Fortune's ouster as a top priority.
But in a last-ditch attempt to protect the now vulnerable Fortune, Trustees Ronni Cooper, Rose Mary Benjamin and William (Tony) Draper on Monday voted a two-year extension of Fortune's contract, together with a 5% raise that increases the superintendent's salary to $62,000 a year. Cooper was voted out of office in last week's election, while Benjamin was forced into a June runoff against top vote-getter Wanda Brown.
Thwart New Majority
The 3-1 vote, board President Draper said plainly, was intended to scuttle anticipated efforts by the new school board majority to oust the superintendent. That new majority will include recently re-elected incumbent Caroline Coleman--who voted against the contract extension--Trustee William Dorn, Trustee-elect Ernest Shaw, and Brown if she defeats Benjamin. To date, Brown and Dorn have been the most vocal critics of Fortune, with Brown making Fortune's replacement a key issue of her campaign.
"We checked with the lawyers already," Draper said. "There's nothing they (the new majority) can do. They can't come in and rescind it. And if they try to buy his contract out, it's going to cost them."
Indeed, that vote has upped the cost of buying Fortune's contract to more than $200,000, but according to teachers' union President Genevieve Neustadter, that is a price she and some teachers would gladly pay.
"We supported those people--Coleman, Brown and Shaw--because we knew where they were coming from as regards Dr. Fortune," she said. "We're opposed to a lame-duck board extending his contract and we're opposed to the superintendent--period. We have teachers who want to start a Pay Fortune Out fund--have fund-raisers to raise the money to buy out his contract."
Neustadter said the union objected to Fortune because "he is not supportive of teachers and does not seek teacher input."
Coleman said she has not come to a conclusion about Fortune's tenure, and said she still is "willing to work with him if he meets the criteria the board originally set up." But, she added, "I did think the timing of this extension was bad. I didn't see any need for the extension since he still has one year on his contract. It wasn't something we discussed in the past, and in view of the fact that those members were leaving, I don't think it was quite the thing to do."
Caught between the old and new boards, Fortune said he will resist efforts to reassign him or buy out his contract.
"I don't take well to threats," he said. "During executive session, board member Dorn told me that if I signed the new contract they'd make my life miserable and reassign me to a menial job in the district. If, on the other hand, I refused to sign, he said I'd get a letter of recommendation to my next post. To me, that's a threat.
"I came here as superintendent, and I intend to remain superintendent for as long as I'm in the district. I'm not interested in any buy-out, either. I'm interested in continuing the agenda I came here with--restoring quality to Inglewood schools."
Dorn, who walked out of Monday night's meeting before the vote was taken, was contacted by The Times but refused to comment on Fortune's statement, the extension, or possible action by the new board.
Issue Is Control
According to Fortune in an interview this week, the issue has become one of control.
"Who's going to control the Inglewood schools? The mayor of the city . . . wants to wield greater influence over who should be employed and in what capacity."
Fortune traced his current predicament to his refusal to bend to demands he said were made by Mayor Edward Vincent.
"Specifically, the mayor on several occasions approached me and asked that I promote certain vice principals in the district to principalships. When I indicated that those people would have to apply and survive the selection process, that seemed to have set up a negative response that has spilled over now to others who support and subscribe to his point of view."
Vincent resolutely denied Fortune's charges, saying, "That is not the truth."
Vincent said that since he left the school board as a member in 1979, "I have never talked to a school board member about who to fire, hire or how to vote. I defy anyone to prove otherwise."