JOHNSON EXIT RATTLES DISTRICT

BRIAN NEARING Staff writer
Section: MAIN,  Page: A1

Date: Thursday, June 3, 2004

The abrupt resignation of Superintendent Michael Johnson rippled through Albany's minority community on Wednesday, with leaders saying it raised new doubts about the Board of Education's commitment to solving the problems of a school district where black and other minority students, some grappling with problems caused by poverty, form a growing majority. Johnson's departure came after a series of battles with Mayor Jerry Jennings and a recent loss of support in middle-class neighborhoods, signaled by their resounding rejection of the school budget this month.


Johnson, the former superintendent of schools in Queens hired by the school board last May, issued a statement that repeated he was leaving for unspecified ``personal reasons.''


Observers said he was hurt by a go-it-alone style that clashed with Albany's political establishment. Jennings -- who routinely criticized the school district and its rebuilding project, including construction of a new middle school at Kelton Court -- did not return calls seeking comment.


Anne Pope, president of the local branch of the NAACP, and Paul Webster, a black school board member allied with Johnson, said Johnson's departure will damage the school board's reputation among black residents.


``Mr. Johnson apparently didn't have the support of the school board ... and after the school budget didn't pass, that might have been it for him,'' Pope said.


``People were disturbed during the last several months when it appeared he was being pushed out. There will probably be some negative feeling toward the school board because of this. Our children are in the majority yet are controlled by the minority.''


Webster, who also announced his resignation Tuesday, said Johnson was focused on addressing a growing trend of failure and dropping out by minority students in the district, but may have failed to walk the ``delicate balance'' between the district's haves and have-nots.


``These problems existed before Michael Johnson got here,'' Webster said. ``He wanted more aggressive change, while the board wanted it to be more incremental.''


Webster said the defeat of the school budget was likely the last straw for Johnson, particularly when voter turnout in minority communities lagged so far behind that in predominantly white neighborhoods. On Tuesday, the board of education cut the spending plan by $2.5 million -- and the projected tax increase from 10 percent to under 6 percent -- in hopes of avoiding another defeat by the voters.


Regarding his own resignation after three years, Webster cited increased work commitments with the National Education Association of New York and the arrival soon of his second child as reason for leaving. He and his wife recently purchased a home in Niskayuna.


Johnson is the second superintendent to leave in three years. He succeeded Lonnie Palmer who joined the district in 1997 and left in March 2003.


Two months ago, several hundred of Johnson's supporters in the black community had rallied to his support at a school board meeting after an anonymous letter circulated that said the board was considering firing him.


Johnson's support in middle-class neighborhoods apparently eroded after he proposed revamping Advanced Placement courses and did little to promote the budget, which would have raised taxes nearly 10 percent, before the vote.


This spring, Johnson had angered the mayor by proposing to deny working papers this summer to failing students. The mayor said it would compromise the city youth employment program. Johnson later withdrew his plan.


In his statement Wednesday, Johnson listed among his accomplishments setting up a dental services program for low-income students, adding literacy and college preparation services and opening up Advanced Placement courses to more minorities.


``He ran into too many waves at once,'' said James Tierney, a spokesman for People Advocating Small Schools, a group that supported the budget.


``Dust-ups'' like that over the Advanced Placement courses where ``some parents got concerned'' took their toll.


Other parents were alienated when Johnson didn't meet with the politically important Council of Albany Neighborhood Associations, which represents more than two dozen associations throughout the city.


``Mr. Johnson is the first superintendent to preside over a budget going down,'' said Howard Stoller, CANA president. ``He never responded to our invitation to present the budget and other neighborhood associations have reported the same.''


Stoller said the school board ``needs to look for someone who is familiar with the city'' to replace Johnson. ``There are a lot of competent administrators in the school district.''


Several observers said Johnson, who leaves his post on June 30, may become superintendent of the Roosevelt Union Free School District, located in Nassau County. The Long Island district with some 2,800 students is about a quarter the size of the Albany school system.


An official there said an official announcement on the selection will be made later.