Schools Chief In A.c. Put On Leave Officials Cited Money Matters In Removing Superintendent Dr. H. Benjamin Williams. He Vowed To Defend Himself.

Posted: June 05, 1998

ATLANTIC CITY — The Atlantic City school board voted late Wednesday to oust its controversial superintendent Dr. H. Benjamin Williams, ending a stormy one-year tenure marked by school violence, financial crises and political battles.

By a 7-3 vote taken shortly after 11 p.m., the board voted to place Williams on immediate paid administrative leave and informed him that his contract would not be renewed. The board also voted to pursue unspecified charges that would allow it, if successful, to break its contract with Williams.

Williams, whose three-decade career has taken him from Philadelphia to Providence, R.I., to Little Rock, Ark. to Paterson, N.J., was unavailable for comment yesterday.

His attorney, Gregory Johnson of Newark, said Williams would ``vigorously defend himself'' against any allegations made by the board and that he would take action shortly.

``We were shocked by the action of the board to place him on administrative leave,'' Johnson said. ``There are no grounds for that action. Whenever you are trying to bring about change in public education reform, you will be subject to criticism and attack.''

Williams' term was dominated by his championing of the reopening of the old high school building on Albany Avenue into a school for 1,800 fifth through eighth graders. The school was reopened against the strong objections of city, county and state officials.

The move was disastrous. Daily fights broke out among students in the aging school, leading to hundreds of suspensions and dozens of arrests. Williams refused the state's order to remove the fifth graders from the school until ordered by a court to do so midyear. Williams defended his use of the school as a way to ease overcrowding.

The school will be closed next year, and students will be moved into trailers back at the neighborhood elementary schools until new schools are built.

Board President Bert Lopez, who took charge of the board after April's elections, said the board was primarily concerned with the constant financial crises it was facing. The board's $44 million budget was defeated by voters, which allowed City Council to take charge of a budget with an $8 million deficit. Also, the board is awaiting a full accounting of millions of dollars spent on Albany Avenue renovations.

``Basically the board felt there was a need for a change in the leadership to move the district forward,'' Lopez said.

Lopez dismissed concerns raised by African American board members that the vote fell along racial lines. Aside from Lopez, who is Latino, the other six members voting to remove Williams are white. The three no votes were from African American board members. Williams is African American.

``I was one of the first ones who stood up to appoint Dr. Williams as the superintendent,'' he said. ``I was very hopeful and had a great deal of promise that he would be the best fit for the district. Unfortunately, the fit wasn't there.''

From the start, Williams aligned himself with a political faction that opposed Mayor James Whelan. Williams was the top campaign contributor to Councilman Lorenzo Langford, the runner-up in last month's mayoral election.

Louis Toscano, a policy adviser to Whelan, said yesterday that Williams refused to meet with Whelan, and their paths did not cross at all until nearly three months into his tenure. To the end, he said, Williams would not return the mayor's phone calls.

``Obviously we had some very significant disagreements with the way the man handled the job,'' Toscano said. ``We hope the board can get these controversies behind it and start focusing on the needs of the kids in the system.''

Board member Jeffree Fauntleroy, an African American board member, abstained from the vote. He said yesterday he felt the board should have taken more time to consider the issues, but he said his sympathies were with the majority of the board.

He dismissed any suggestion that the vote was racially motivated and said the focus was on finances.

``I have serious concerns about the conduct of our superintendent as well,'' Fauntleroy said. ``I applaud the efforts as far as them trying to take the bull by the horn and move on with business. I don't believe it's racial.''

The board appointed DeLois Campbell, an assistant superintendent, as acting superintendent. Lopez said the board would appoint an interim superintendent while it conducts a search for a new chief.

Williams' $110,000-a-year contract expires June 30, 2000. He replaced R. Mark Harris, the district's first African American superintendent, whose contract was bought out for $225,631 after he was removed amid allegations of fiscal mismanagement and controversial educational policies.

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