Alfred D. Tutela: brash, with a track record of effectiveness THE FINAL FIVE: SEARCH FOR A SCHOOL SUPERINTENDENT

April 28, 1991|By Michael Ollove

When a bitterly divided Cleveland Board of Education appointed Alfred D. Tutela as the city's interim school superintendent in 1985, one of the dissenters couldn't disguise his disgust.

"This makes me want to vomit," he said.

Which helps make one, if not the, essential point about Dr. Tutela: This is not a man who arouses mild reactions.

Dr. Tutela is not one of the faceless, gray bureaucrats who often seem to occupy superintendencies, people so worried about being diplomatic as to make their utterances immediately forgettable.

"He has a huge ego and he has little patience for fools, even if they're on his board [of education]," said Joseph Tegreene, a Cleveland lawyer who was on Dr. Tutela's board but strongly opposed his appointment. "He sometimes has self-righteous tendencies which can slip into arrogance."

It is that brash, no holds-barred temperament that some believe will always mean that Dr. Tutela and his bosses inevitably will tire of one another, as they finally did in Cleveland a year ago.

"Al's personality is such that, ultimately, it's going to happen," said an Ohio school administrator, who asked not to be named. "Al is blunt and direct and strong-willed enough so that ultimately he will have to leave any place. That is not meant to be a negative. It's just a fact of life."

Which is not to say that everyone believes the board was right to pay Dr. Tutela $330,000 to go away.

Despite years of turbulence and remarkable public fights with his school board -- confrontations that on several occasions ended up in courtrooms -- some believe Dr. Tutela was the best superintendent in Cleveland's history.

He corrected a terribly backward school transportation system. He persuaded area businesses to pony up $16 million to be used as a college fund for students who earned good grades. And he invested new vigor and energy into the secondary schools by creating "thematic high schools" with specialized topics.

He also was praised for showing genuine caring and sensitivity toward the social and economic miseries of inner city students.

"Of all the superintendents I've met," said John Lewis, managing partner of a prestigious Cleveland law firm and a member of an educational reform group, "I can say Alfred Tutela cares more about kids, honestly and deeply, more than anyone else I've met. He feels passionately that any dollar that comes into thesystem has to go to those kids. He knows what it is to be a youngster who has everything in the world going against him."

His accomplishments in Cleveland came despite the rockiest of starts. He arrived in the late 1970s as part of a team of desegregation administrators brought to the city by a federal judge. Because of the circumstances, he was immediately viewed with suspicion by school authorities, particularly whites.

Still, Dr. Tutela had enough support among blacks to land an interim appointment in 1985, after the then-superintendent committed suicide. Later that year, he was himself replaced by a black, which prompted Dr. Tutela to file his first lawsuit against the board, charging racial discrimination. But months later, the new superintendent was fired and the job again fell to Dr. Tutela.

Each time he landed the job, Mr. Tegreene opposed him, once calling him "the worst possible choice."

It was an assessment he would come to drastically revise.

"I was wrong about him," Mr. Tegreene said. "He performed in exemplary fashion. He was excellent. He was exceptionally bright, very able, had good organization skills and good community relations skills. He was tough, which is of absolute importance in an urban school district, with its competing constituents. He was firm when he had to be, but also flexible when he had to be."

The issue that finally and irrevocably divided him from the board had its origins in 1988 when he marshaled public support for a $60 million bond levy for school construction and renovation. Although voters passed the bond issue, Dr. Tutela insisted that he, rather than the board, would determine how the money was spent. After two years, a majority of the board became sufficiently disenchanted with him to bid him goodbye at whatever the cost.

Mr. Tegreene, like many others, puts the blame for Dr. Tutela's departure on the school board rather than Dr. Tutela. He points out that Cleveland has had 10 school superintendents in just 13 years.

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