WALTON QUITS; ALBANY STUNNED

RICK KARLIN Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Wednesday, July 3, 1996

ALBANY -- One week after the end of a grueling budget season and a month shy of two years on the job, Albany schools Superintendent Arthur ``Sam'' Walton announced his resignation Tuesday.


The news came as a shock to parents, students and teachers who had come to view Walton as a skilled consensus-builder and a welcome antidote to the district's tradition of cronyism. Walton, 48, was the first African-American to head the city's school district of about 9,000 pupils, of which more than 60 percent are minorities.


Walton's announcement was made with little explanation or fanfare at the start of a sparsely attended, 20-minute meeting at the Arbor Hill Community School. His plans for the immediate future were unclear. He said only that he was considering several other public and private-sector job offers in education.


``These last years in the district have provided me with many challenges, opportunities and rewarding experiences,'' Walton said. He added his resignation is effective August 16 and that within several weeks he will give the school board a plan for finding a successor.


Following a moment of stunned silence, school board members quickly made some routine announcements, voted on housekeeping matters and adjourned. Several of the approximately 60 people at the meeting then came up to Walton to shake hands, exchange hugs and express sadness at his decision.


``Thank you, Mr. Walton,'' said Martha Levy, president of the city council of Parent Teacher Associations. ``I'm totally shocked like everybody else.''


``I can't believe it,'' said Sharon Snide, a parent. ``He's the best this system ever had. This guy is for the parents, for the kids.''


``Sam Walton will be sorely missed,'' added school board President John T. Evers.


Some of those at Tuesday's meeting speculated that budget disagreements between Walton and the board precipitated his departure. Walton said that was not the case, and board members such as Joseph McCaffrey and Ed Trant said they tried to change his mind after he had told them of his plans just before the meeting.


Walton had been at the center of a battle that initially pitted fiscally conservative board members such as Evers and Benedict Conboy, who wanted no tax increase at all, against others who wanted to avoid deep budget cuts.


After Walton released an initial budget that would have cut programs like sports and summer school without raising taxes, there was an outcry among students, parents and teachers.


That led to weeks of feverish back-and-forth meetings between Walton and board members. The result was a compromise $92 million budget that included a 6 percent property tax hike.


Walton was the first superintendent in recent memory who did not come up through the ranks of the district's bureaucracy, which was traditionally dominated by loyal members of Albany's Democratic machine.


Before coming to the district, Walton had spent 16 years at the state Education Department, rising to the level of deputy commissioner for elementary and secondary education.


Students saw Walton as a role model, said C. Omarr Evans, who will be a senior next year at Albany High School. ``I'm quite disappointed,'' Evans said of Walton's pending departure.


A Buffalo native, Walton was a strong supporter of the magnet school concept in which special curriculum themes are used as a way to draw students from various parts of the city. Magnet schools were considered as one way to break down the neighborhood-based racial segregation that has characterized the Albany school district.


Things changed in the two years since Walton was hired, however.


While he was brought in by a board that agreed with his push for magnet schools, fiscal conservatives have since been elected to a majority of board seats.


Several of the new board members, including Evers, Benedict Conboy as well as longtime member Pat Amodeo, have complained that magnet schools were getting unfair amounts of money and resources.


Still, on Tuesday the board offered nothing but praise for Walton, who has been privately described as something of a workaholic.


``Walton has demonstrated an amazing ability to enhance many aspects of our educational system without losing focus on the `big picture,' '' said Conboy. He added the search for a replacement should focus on getting a qualified person such as Walton, not someone with the proper ``pedigree,'' or insider political connections.


Walton's departure follows the loss of several top administrators in recent months.


Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Joanne M. Scully left in February amid what were later revealed to be clashes with other school district employees. Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Eleanor Bartlett has been doing double-duty since then.


Director of Elementary Education Ann Marie DeMarco told the Times Union on Tuesday she was considering leaving as well, because budget cuts had decimated her department.


In addition, 55 teaching jobs are being eliminated due to this year's budget cuts.


``There's no doubt about the fact that people in key positions will no longer be around,'' said Ritchie.


Added Hackett Middle School Principal Julie Teenan: ``Replacing Sam is going to be tough.''