INGLEWOOD — In a candid and wide-ranging interview, school board President William Dorn defended the decision of three board members, including himself, to fire Supt. Rex Fortune and said turmoil in the district is the result of a "political dogfight" between Mayor Edward Vincent and state Assemblyman Curtis R. Tucker--one in which the former superintendent was an "unwitting pawn."
Until this week, Dorn, 40, has refused to talk with The Times, but in an interview he requested, the board president for the first time discussed his view of the controversy that has ripped the district apart in recent months.
Since the board fired Fortune in early May, a coalition of parents, community leaders and board opposition members have launched a recall effort against Dorn and the other members of the board majority. Partly in response to community hostility and because a favored candidate to replace Fortune turned them down, board majority members last week voted to begin negotiations to rehire the former superintendent. The negotiations are continuing.
The coalition of Fortune supporters has asserted that the new board majority, which took control after the April primary, is part of a political machine controlled by Vincent and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Roosevelt Dorn, a longtime Inglewood political figure who is the board president's uncle. At stake, they say, is control of the school district and its 1,200 jobs.
Fortune himself has claimed that his dismissal stemmed from his refusal to appoint a friend of Vincent to a principalship.
Vincent and Judge Dorn have denied all charges.
In the interview this week, Dorn charged that Tucker, not Vincent, aspires to control the city and its school district, and that the assemblyman, together with the two members of the school board minority, has spread "wild accusations about the board majority and Mayor Vincent because it serves their purpose to have the district in chaos."
"If things were to settle down, they'd have no power, no limelight. They have not produced one shred of evidence to back up their charges," said Dorn.
Dorn claimed that Tucker plans to retire from his Assembly seat with a full pension next year and run for mayor of Inglewood after getting allies to run for city clerk and City Council.
Tucker denied having such plans, saying he intends to run for reelection next year. "I have no desire to give up my job and make $900 a month," the salary for the mayor, said Tucker, who makes $33,732 per year as an assemblyman.
Dorn said Tucker has formed a "temporary alliance" with board minority members William (Tony) Draper and Rose Mary Benjamin. Benjamin, with the help of the coalition, trounced Wanda Brown in a runoff election earlier this month.
Fortune became an "unwitting pawn for this alliance when he apparently decided that he'd have to choose sides if he wanted to keep his job," Dorn said. "That's when he became very political."
He pointed to Fortune's acceptance of a three-year extension passed by a lame-duck board majority in April as "a very political move," and one reason behind the new majority's initial request for his suspension.
"Nothing was presented to justify the extension. There was no review of his goals, or evaluation of his performance. The previous June that same board had refused him the 4% increase he requested, and gave him only 2%," Dorn said.
Members who voted to extend the contract acknowledged that they were trying to protect Fortune from dismissal by the new majority.
"It was very obvious what they were doing," Dorn said. "If Fortune truly were neutral, he would not have accepted that extension, knowing the makeup of the board had changed. He knew that accepting it would antagonize the board.
"Frankly, I can't understand why he would want to be locked into a three-year extension facing a hostile board. I advised him--he says I threatened him--not to get in the middle of this."
'Sealed His Fate'
Dorn said the superintendent "sealed his fate" when he refused to place his suspension and the election of a new board president and vice president on the board's April 22 agenda.
After that incident, Dorn said, the board's vote for suspension became one for dismissal.
"He was insubordinate in not placing those items on the agenda. If he had any qualms about the legality of those items, he still had no right to keep them off the agenda. If county counsel later determined the items to be illegal, our actions would have been nullified anyway."
Board attorney Andrea Oliver said she advised Fortune that the proposed agenda items might be illegal.
Dorn has since said he would vote for Fortune's reinstatement if Fortune agreed to a number of conditions, including the withdrawal of a $3.5-million lawsuit the former superintendent filed against the district and majority members after they refused to pay off his extended $250,000 contract.
Dorn defended the decision not to buy out Fortune's contract.