WHEN Laval Wilson came to Boston five years ago from Rochester, N.Y., to be superintendent of schools, he was widely hailed. He had a reputation as a tough administrator who could root out cronyism and incompetence and reverse a high dropout rate. As Boston's first black superintendent, Mr. Wilson became an important symbol of the city's efforts to recover from the racial conflict stirred by busing in the 1970s.
But last week, the school committee effectively fired Wilson during a heated session in which all four black members and one white member stormed out, one terming it a ``private lynching.''
The committee's decision to buy out the remainder of the superintendent's contract, which expires in June 1991, ended more than a year of political wrangling. Six of the committee's 13 members voted to dismiss him last June. Instead, Wilson and the board agreed to review his performance every six months using a set of criteria such as test-score performance, dropout rates, balancing the budget, and negotiating a new teachers' contract.
But the political balance on the committee changed last November, when two new members were elected on an anti-Wilson platform. Wilson and his supporters on the board contend that the committee violated its own process by arbitrarily deciding to pay off Wilson's contract without reviewing his evaluation or giving any reason for the dismissal.
Several black leaders, still upset over the behavior of the Boston police in the Carol Stuart murder case, believe that Wilson was fired because of his race.
``I don't think it is the case. I know it is,'' charges Louis Elisa, president of Boston's chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
``Some people had difficulty taking directions from a black superintendent,'' Wilson himself told a press conference last week.
``His evaluations were good,'' says John O'Bryant, a school committee member who supports Wilson. The committee ``never followed a procedure where they outlined the problems and allowed him to respond.''
But other blacks are less than enthusiastic about Wilson. Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson wrote that the superintendent began showing up at black events only last year, when his support on the school committee was waning. ``Wilson was not a superintendent of the people,'' he wrote.
School committee member Peggy Mullen-Davis, an outspoken Wilson opponent, denies the racism charges. ``Personality and racism had nothing to do with it,'' she says. ``Laval is an extraordinarily hard worker. But he is on his own track.'' She says Wilson ignored or would not implement committee policies to cut the dropout rate, do more for at-risk youth, and tackle school violence.
Wilson's critics also blame an aloof management style, unwillingness to delegate responsibility, and inability to build bridges to parents and teachers. His pursuit of jobs in New York City and Oakland, Calif., left the impression his heart was not in Boston.
The crux of the matter was a ``fundamental mismatch'' between Wilson's centralized hands-on style and the school committee's shift to school-based management, says David Crandall, president of The Network Inc., an Andover, Mass., firm that assists school systems in performance evaluation and teacher training.
``At the outset, [the school committee] thought they needed a hard-line administrator,'' Mr. Crandall says. But when shifting to school-based management, he says, ``the last thing you want is an administrator who has an I-have-all-the-answers orientation.''
The real losers in the dispute, several observers say, are the students in the troubled system.
Crandall compares the Boston schools to those of New York City. ``Neither system is organized for the benefit of the kids. Anything they get is in spite of the system, and due to the extraordinary energy of the teachers and building-based people. The system is a monster that serves itself. It has lost sight of what it's supposed to do - focus on students and their learning.''