James A. Williams, who is expected to be Buffalo's next school superintendent, describes himself as a hands-on reformer who will be "passionate, articulate and aggressive" in his efforts to improve student performance.
"Someone must step up and turn around an urban school district and show that poor and minority students can learn," Williams said in a 40-minute telephone interview. "I cannot sit back and allow children to fail because of adult behavior."
Williams, 61, was identified by the Buffalo Board of Education Thursday as the "leading candidate" to succeed former Superintendent Marion Canedo, who retired in June. Contract negotiations are expected to begin soon, and Williams would take office in July.
Improving low state test scores in fourth and eighth grades will be a key challenge, Williams said.
"The problem is not at the fourth- and eighth-grade level," he said. "The problem is with the formative years. We must address those issues immediately."
If approved, Williams also will face a recurring budget deficit, thorny relations between the district and its unions, a dramatic enrollment decline, the need to close more schools, and a state control board.
Previously, Williams was superintendent of the Dayton, Ohio, school system for eight years before he was fired during a fiscal crisis in 1999.
Williams defended his record in Dayton and denied suggestions from people then active in the Dayton schools that his diplomatic skills failed to measure up to his zest for change.
Williams said he instituted merit pay for teachers, outsourcing of services traditionally performed by district staff, greater decision-making powers for individual schools, partnerships with colleges and businesses, and -- in some schools -- year-round instruction and school uniforms.
When the Dayton teachers went on strike for 16 days, Williams kept the schools open by using closed circuit television instruction in elementary schools and by hiring 1,000 substitute teachers from Indiana in the higher grades.
"That's not inflexibility, sir," Williams said. "That's collaboration. That's consensus."
At the same time, Williams said he has learned and matured since leaving Dayton.
"I have been away from the superintendent's job for six or seven years, and I've had the opportunity to look at it through a different lens," he said. "I know how to do it better."
Williams, the son of a minister, used this analogy: "I know how to direct the choir now, rather than trying to sing all the parts."
Ralph Hernandez, the Board of Education's West District member, said he is impressed by Williams in many respects, but said it is "terrible" that the full nine-member board was not told about him being fired in Dayton.
Hernandez said he found out about the firing in Dayton only through his own research and urged that Williams be reinterviewed.
Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said the board's effort to maintain strict confidentiality throughout the search process prevented that concern from surfacing earlier.
"Now it looks like they were trying to cover it up," Rumore said. "That's not fair to Williams. He should have an opportunity to meet with people and say: 'Look, this is what happened.' "
Jack Coyle, the Park District board member and also one of four board members on the search committee, said Williams' departure from Dayton revolved around "more of a philosophical difference" and involved no impropriety.
"I think he's a stellar candidate," Coyle said.
The search committee was aware of how Williams' superintendency ended in Dayton, Coyle said.
Williams declined to discuss specific plans for Buffalo, saying he will develop and implement strategies in cooperation with the Board of Education, staff, district unions and the community.
But he said change takes hold only with strong direction from the top.
"I believe superintendents must lead reform, not delegate reform," he said. "You're working in a system where people are accustomed to the status quo. You must have a vision and a game plan you share with them. You have to explain to people why they must change."
Williams said he will be visible and accessible, not only at City Hall, but in city churches and community functions.
"I'm very outspoken," he said. "You will know what I'm thinking, and it will be centered around a plan to move forward."
While defending a superintendent search process that many have criticized as overly secretive, Williams said he's now looking forward to meeting the community, perhaps at a public meeting.
"The next step is to take James Williams to the community," he said. "I will stand there for four, five, six hours and answer any questions that people have."
A resident of Silver Spring, Md., Williams is currently the chief academic officer for a private firm that establishes and operates alternative schools.
From 2000-03, Williams was a deputy superintendent in Maryland's Montgomery County Public Schools, the 17th-largest school district in the nation.
Williams was involved in instituting full-day kindergarten and lowering class sizes in schools serving poor children, and in improving professional development, said Brian J. Porter, chief of staff to Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry P. Weast.
"Jerry has a very direct management style that is razor sharp on the critical issues," Porter said. Williams, he said, combines that with "a very humane and gregarious style of collaboration."