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Davis, in power shift, is elected leader of Camden school board

In a major shift of power, the Camden school board last night narrowly elected Sara T. Davis as its new president.

In a major shift of power, the Camden school board last night narrowly elected Sara T. Davis as its new president.

By a 5-4 vote, Davis, a retired teacher, defeated Nyeema Watson for the board's top leadership spot. Davis replaces Philip E. Freeman, who was prohibited from seeking another term on the board because of a new state ethics policy that bars him as a high-ranking state employee from holding public or elected office.

Also at last night's board reorganization meeting, Martha F. Wilson was elected vice president, defeating Watson by a 5-4 vote. Watson held the position for the last three years.

In both votes, appointed board members Kathryn Blackshear and newcomer Theo Spencer broke ranks with four other appointees and cast deciding votes against Watson, also an appointee. The board has three elected members, including Davis and Wilson, and six appointed members.

"I did the best that I could with the information that I had," Spencer said.

Spencer was appointed last month to a three-year term by Mayor Gwendolyn Faison. Blackshear and Luis Lopez were also reappointed to second terms by the mayor.

Two other appointees were also sworn in last night: Susan Dunbary-Bey and Amalia Adame. They were tapped last week by acting Gov. Richard J. Codey.

The Camden school board was restructured under the 2002 Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act, which pumped $175 million into the city.

The restructuring allows the governor and mayor to make three appointments each to the school board. It also gives the governor veto authority over board actions. Camden residents get to elect three board members every three years.

Freeman, an assistant director in the state Division on Civil Rights, was appointed to the board in 2004 by Faison, before the state's new ethics policy. He had thrown his support behind Watson, a gubernatorial appointee. Since the restructuring, appointees have often yielded their influence by voting as a bloc.

For Davis, this marks her third time as president. She was reelected to a third term in 2005.

"It is a challenge, but it's not something I will back away from," Davis said last night.

Among the tasks facing the board are finding a permanent successor for former Superintendent Annette D. Knox, who resigned in June, and plugging a $10.5 million budget deficit.

The district, which has nearly 16,000 students, has been rocked by a continuing state criminal probe into state test rigging and improper spending practices.