Giuliani's political managers stoked the issue, "though you could never pin it on him [Giuliani] directly," Fernandez said. Some of Giuliani's supporters also objected to the way the program addressed racial and religious tolerance. "Multiculturalism is a good idea, but multicultural education has deteriorated into an anti-white curriculum," said Herman Badillo, former Bronx president and now an education advisor to Giuliani's presidential campaign.
As polls showed Giuliani's campaign growing stronger, the school board began to embrace his supporters' concerns, and Fernandez was fired.
The controversy died down when the board hired Ramon C. Cortines as chancellor in September 1993 and Giuliani took office several months later.
Cortines, a courtly, soft-spoken man, had a strong track record. He had run school systems in Pasadena, San Francisco and San Jose, and was a former assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Education.
But Cortines and Giuliani quickly crossed swords over school finances.
Although Giuliani did not directly control the school system, he did control about half of its funding, which came from city coffers, and he quickly began cuts aimed at what he regarded as a wasteful system.
Although the system's budget rose by about 3% in real terms between 1992 and 2002, school officials thought they needed more to bring teacher salaries in line with other school districts and to make repairs to decrepit infrastructure.
Cortines, now a deputy mayor in Los Angeles, acknowledges that he inherited a bloated bureaucracy, but he maintains that the mayor's cuts shortchanged students and parents. "I took him on on that," Cortines said.
The arbiter in these disputes was usually the Board of Education, which was made up of seven members -- five appointed by the presidents of each of the five boroughs and two by the mayor. The Manhattan, Brooklyn and Bronx positions on the board were held by liberals. Giuliani's two appointees sided with a Staten Island conservative. Queens often broke the tie. The eccentric group provided what many scornful parents thought of as comic opera for the city.
Giuliani's fights with Cortines also became personal.
In an apparent reference to Cortines' slight stature, Giuliani publicly called the chancellor the "little victim" and said he should not act so "precious."
Cortines recalled that Giuliani called him one evening and said he needed an urgent meeting. When Cortines arrived at Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence, Giuliani kept him waiting all night.
"I should have just left," Cortines said. By October 1995 he quit.
"It was becoming the Ray and Rudy show," Cortines recalled. "I didn't come there to fight with the mayor. But I wasn't going to be a milquetoast and let him steamroll me."
The next school chancellor, Rudy Crew, was backed by Giuliani. When he arrived, Crew told Cortines his problem was he didn't know how to handle Giuliani. "I told him, 'you'll see,' " Cortines recalled.
At first, the relationship blossomed. Crew and Giuliani took in games at Yankee Stadium. Another time, a news photo captured them smoking cigars.
Crew soon was being praised for demanding accountability, and test scores began to rise.
"The schools were really thriving under Rudy Crew," said Robert Tobias, former chief of student testing in the school system. "He was a visionary."
But, after a few years, Crew ran into trouble with Giuliani. Some analysts attribute those problems to a conservative shift in Giuliani that accompanied his aborted 1999 campaign for the U.S. Senate.
By then, Giuliani had embraced school vouchers, and he supported shifting millions of tax dollars to a pilot program for parents choosing private schools.
Crew strongly opposed vouchers, which he calls "an idea that at its heart is about breaking the back of public education," and he recalled that Giuliani never discussed his voucher plan with him. In fact, he learned about it from reporters, which he says gave him a new understanding of "what he [Giuliani] was capable of doing unilaterally."
In April 1999, Giuliani said the school system was "dysfunctional and "should be blown up." He described the system and the officials in it "as no good and beyond redemption."
Crew responded the next day with in an open letter to the media, calling Giuliani's comments "destructive" and "reckless."
"When the mayor declares that the whole school system should be blown up, he tells 1.1 million children and thousands of parents, teachers and administrators that they are wasting their time."
The Board of Education, led by Giuliani's appointees, threw out Crew in late 1999. One issue that worked against him was an internal investigation that found some teachers and principals had altered test scores.
"The mayor will always win," said Crew, now superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools. "There was no other possible outcome, except for this Rudy to leave. We were both very intense, bullheaded. But I don't hold a grudge."