COMPTON — The school board voted Tuesday to fire Centennial High School football Coach Tony Cruz after administrators charged in a private meeting that he manipulated grades, took students on unauthorized, out-of-state trips and racked up thousands of dollars in expenses without authorization.
The board also upheld the suspension of Centennial Principal Henry Jefferson during the meeting, which was closed to the public under an exemption to the California open meetings law.
According to a school official who attended the board session, Jefferson was accused of giving Cruz what amounted to "carte blanche" at the high school. The official spoke only on the condition that he not be identified.
Cruz, who has coached at Centennial for a year and is credited with turning around a failing football program and snaring college scholarships for his best players, did not attend the board meeting.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 23, 1988 Home Edition Long Beach Part 10 Page 3 Column 1 Zones Desk 2 inches; 71 words Type of Material: Correction
In a June 16 story in the Long Beach/Southeast sections, "Board Fires Coach; Backs Suspension of Centennial Principal," The Times reported that an employee of Centennial High School in Compton had been interviewed by Compton police as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct with a student. The police concluded there was no basis for the allegations. A Centennial teacher, who was reinstated last month after a one-day suspension for undisclosed reasons, was not the subject of this police inquiry.
Cruz Denies Allegations
When told Wednesday of the allegations conveyed by the school official, he strongly denied doing anything improper and said he intends to file suit against the school district.
"I'm sorry for the kids (football players)," Cruz said. "I don't know what to say about the Compton Unified School District except that kids come last."
"I'm just relieved it's over," said Cruz, who intends to immediately look for another coaching job. "I'll just carry on with what I do best--coach football."
The exact charges against Cruz have not been made public. School Supt. Ted D. Kimbrough refused to explain why he had suddenly suspended Cruz, the principal and a Centennial public safety officer on May 26.
At one point, Compton police were called to investigate an allegation that a fourth Centennial employee had been involved in sexual misconduct with a student while on a trip organized by Cruz. After interviewing a student several times, however, police concluded that there was no basis for the allegation and the man was returned to his job.
Board members refused to discuss the allegations even after their vote Tuesday, in which six called for the coach's dismissal and one--Trustee Sam Littleton--abstained.
According to the school official, Kimbrough revealed these details at the private session:
The allegation of sexual misconduct arose after a trip on which Cruz and two other coaches took 37 players to Utah. On the way home, the players and coaches ended up in a hotel in Las Vegas. The board did not authorize the trip and no parent chaperones went along--a situation that Kimbrough said could have left the district liable if the accusations of sexual misconduct had proven true.
On Wednesday, Cruz confirmed that the trip occurred and said "other coaches were chaperones; there were three of us, what do they want?"
Cruz was accused of engineering good grades for his players by teaching some of the classes in which they were enrolled. School board members were shown diagrams with the names of students, their grade history and the times when Cruz allegedly was teaching, even though he is not credentialed as an instructor under state law. Whenever Cruz allegedly was teaching, the grades of his players went up.
"I don't know how that (manipulation of grades) could be done," Cruz responded. "I didn't have a class, nor did I have anybody else's class."
Cruz was accused of having charged thousands of dollars to Centennial, including $3,500 for the Utah trip, $2,000 worth of lockers, $1,100 worth of trophies and a $435 plumbing bill.
Cruz confirmed that the trophy costs were billed to the school.
Because he is a part-time, uncertified employee hired only to be a coach, Cruz does not have an avenue for appealing the board's decision to fire him.
Jefferson and the suspended public safety officer, Ira Harper, will be afforded a hearing, and if the board subsequently votes to fire them, they can appeal to an administrative law judge. After that, they can file a court suit.
There was bitterness over Cruz's firing, though, on the part of parents and students, for whom Cruz, 45, is a hero. "It's rotten," said Howard Sanders, whose grandson, Tory Florence, plays on the team. "It's the worst thing I've ever heard of," said Sanders, a Cruz supporter who attended the board meeting Tuesday with his wife, Vera, and with their grandson.
"He's going to get the hell out of Centennial," said an angry Mrs. Sanders, who vowed after the board vote that she would put her grandson back in parochial school. Florence said that he transferred to Centennial from Serra High School in Gardena last year to play for Cruz.
After a nearly three-hour, closed-door session, the board publicly voted to fire the coach. Harper's suspension was unanimously upheld. And the members unanimously voted to make physical education teacher Houston Haynes the new football coach.
The board split, though, over whether to uphold the suspension of Jefferson, with board members Kelvin D. Filer, Bernice Woods and John Steward voting against it.