ATLANTIC CITY — What appeared to be a routine transfer of school administrators in the district Tuesday revealed a rift between two communities, as well as a political rift on City Council.
By the end, the city’s Board of Education approved the reassignment of principal La’Quetta Small from the Pennsylvania Avenue School to Atlantic City High School, where she will replace Lina Gil, the district’s first Latina principal. Gil will serve as the Pennsylvania Avenue School principal.
The decision was marked by an hour of tense public comment as residents filled the board room at the Citi Center building on Atlantic Avenue both in support and in protest of the swap.
Atlantic City’s population is diverse, with about 34% black residents, 29% Hispanic, 18% Asian and 15% white. Gil was the first Latina principal in the district, which has a majority of black administrators, unlike the national average, which is 80% white.
Representatives of the Latino community said the transfer was politically motivated and underscored the under-representation of their community within the schools.
Bert Lopez, president of the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County, told the board Gil earned her position, noting the increase in graduation rates during her tenure. He said the district hasn’t given Gil enough time to complete her five-year plan.
“This should not be about one good principal versus another, this should not be about black representation versus Hispanic representation, it should not be about trading one injustice for another, and certainly should not be about any political connections,” Lopez said.
Superintendent Barry Caldwell said he was disappointed by the rhetoric that preceded the meeting and called it a “false narrative” that the decision was politically motivated because Small is the wife of City Council President Marty Small Sr.
Caldwell said he is tasked with educational goals by the Board of Education, and sometimes he has to make difficult decisions. He said the district has a long history of transferring administrators between schools.
“These are not the first principals being transferred, and they won’t be the last,” he said.
Caldwell said the transfer was in the best interest of the children based on his observations but did not elaborate.
Marty Small was one of the last people to address the Board of Education and called out many of the previous commenters, including Councilman Moisse “Mo” Delgado, who he said was behind the Hispanic Association’s protest of the transfer.
Small was interrupted several times by the crowd while he spoke, admonishing the association for accusing him of using his political position to help his wife’s career. At one point, Delgado approached him at the microphone but was held back by Cristian Moreno, advocacy chair for the Hispanic Association.
Small said his wife’s credentials stand on their own and she doesn’t need political connections to advance. La’Quetta Small holds certificates in teaching, health education, supervisor, principal and superintendent.
Marty Small said he was speaking as a husband, not as council president.
“This wasn’t a political decision,” he said. “We’re supposed to be uniting the community, and tonight you see the division of our community at its worst.”
Gil and La’Quetta Small were present at Tuesday’s meeting, but Gil did not stay for the vote.
Afterward, La’Quetta Small said, “The board made a decision, and I will accept my new assignment.”
Moreno said the black residents of the city should understand why the Hispanic residents were upset about the transfer.
“You had to fight for it, too, so you should know our struggle now,” Moreno said. “Our kids need somebody up there who looks like them, to tell them that their futures are boundless, that they can do whatever they want in life, that they can go to college, become the next principal of Atlantic City High School and then more.”
Delgado, who also is a member of the Hispanic Association, said he represents the “new minority” in Atlantic City and called for better representation in the school district.
“Because in life here in Atlantic City, if it’s not white, it’s black,” he said. “We’re forgetting that Atlantic City is a microcosm of the world.”
He said the issue is about equality and equity, not just for one specific group.
“Now that we have people who look like us in power, we’re expecting you to stand and make rightful decisions not to exclude anyone but to include,” Delgado said.
Moreno said Small was “dirtying” the name of the Hispanic community in Atlantic City.
“You see our community is here in full force because this matters to us. We’re not here for nothing,” Moreno said.
In a letter to school board President Patricia Bailey on Tuesday, 3rd Ward Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, who also serves as president of the Atlantic City branch of the NAACP, endorsed La’Quetta Small and said the principal transfer was being made out to be a racial issue when it was not.
Shabazz attended Tuesday’s meeting and said the rhetoric was “alarming and disappointing.”
“They’re correct there should be more Hispanic representation, but that’s a separate question,” he said. “My hope is that we’ll be able to come together and heal.”