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Alonso taps Army retiree

The Baltimore Sun

In a move to fix the city school system's managerial problems, Andres Alonso, the system's chief executive officer, has chosen a retired Army officer with a strong background in logistics to act as his second in command.

Maj. Gen. Bennie E. Williams, a Baltimore native who served 35 years in the Army, will be chief of staff, serving as a liaison between Alonso and principals and top administrators.

Before retiring from the military this year, Williams served as chief operating officer of the Defense Logistics Agency, where he oversaw more than 400 civilian and military personnel responsible for distributing equipment to Army personnel worldwide.

"Accountability resides within me," Williams said yesterday when Alonso introduced him at Frederick Douglass High school, from which Williams graduated in 1968. Williams joined the Army in 1972 after earning a degree in education at Morgan State University.

The challenges facing Alonso and Williams include deteriorating buildings, incomplete records of student attendance and grades, and a decades-old special-education lawsuit alleging that students did not receive services to which they were legally entitled. In some cases, the students did not get to school because they weren't picked up by buses.

And, last month, schools officials met with City Council members and confirmed that incomplete or shoddy repair work was done at 40 schools.

"We're in the trenches, and every decision that needs to be made is for the good of the kids, " said Alonso. "This decision was for the good of the kids."

Williams, 57, is a 2007 fellow of The Broad Superintendents Academy, a 10-month executive management program designed to prepare those with business, military and educational backgrounds to lead public schools. The program was founded by billionaire businessman Eli Broad and his wife, Edythe, who with Bill Gates are spending a considerable part of their wealth to help the nation's public schools.

Williams said the first thing he will do in his new job is to assess the competency of the staff at the system's headquarters. Then, Williams said, he will meet with parents and community leaders.

"I want to go out and talk to folks and then work those issues, concerns and challenges back up to the district headquarters. I'm going to fix it," he said.

Alonso said he heard of Williams through a former colleague and current participant at The Broad Superintendents Academy, which was created in 2002. Its graduates include Thomas Brady, a retired Army colonel and the interim CEO for the school district of Philadelphia; Prince George's County Superintendent John E. Deasy; Montgomery County Deputy Superintendent John Q. Porter; and superintendents in Durham, N.C., San Diego County, Calif., Pittsburgh and Houston.

Williams said his fellowship is scheduled to end in November. A spokeswoman for the academy said 21 of the 111 graduates or current participants have military backgrounds.

"The military retires more than 100 individuals at level of general or higher each year, and what we've found is that they have an incredible commitment to public service and terrific management skills," said Karen Denne, the spokeswoman for the academy. "They have experiences in managing organizations and achieving a goal, which in this case, is improving student achievement. It's an ideal background to transition into urban superintendents."

Alan Ingram, executive director of federal programs for Oklahoma City public pchools, is part of this year's superintendents academy class and has worked with Williams on a few case studies, analyzing ills in urban school districts.

"What I've noted about Bennie ... he's very astute and very sharp in terms of reading people and using situation and tactical analysis to understand complexities of education," Ingram said.

Henry Duvall, a spokesman for the Council of Great City Schools, an advocacy group for urban districts, said high-ranking school officials with military backgrounds tend to do well if they can make adjustments.

"It's not going to be as regimented. Whether the former officer can make that transition, that remains to be seen. But most have done OK," said Duvall. One former military officer who has done well is David L. Brewer III, the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District and a retired Navy vice admiral.

Alonso, the former deputy chancellor in New York, said he contacted Williams about a month ago. Alonso said he had no other serious candidates.

Williams is scheduled to start Aug. 1, pending approval by the city school board. The board's next meeting is slated for late August, but Brian Morris, chairman of the city school board, said a meeting will be called in the next few weeks.

"We're putting together a dream team to ensure the success of every child in the district," Morris said. "I see [Williams] as the next step in our progression. His familiarity with our community and background in logistics, that's what we need as a system."

brent.jones@baltsun.com

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