The emergence of an experienced and reform-minded "leading candidate" in the Buffalo school superintendent process is a hopeful sign that the economically and educationally challenged school system might get a new leader who's up to the job. If James Williams is hired -- and proves to be the agent of positive change he seems to be -- city schools and city schoolchildren ultimately win.
Williams' push as school superintendent in Dayton, Ohio, for improved academic performance, better management and greater cost efficiency looks like a strong match with the deepest needs of Buffalo's school system.
Now that Williams has convinced the search committee that he is the best candidate for the job, he also needs to make that case to the parents of Buffalo. To his credit, he has said he will be accessible to the public, not only at City Hall, but in city churches and community functions.
That is reassuring, because there are some issues Williams needs to address to make the community completely comfortable with him. Among them are the reasons he was fired from his superintendent's job in Dayton. Another is an incident in which he cashed checks totaling $8,000 for teaching and lecturing at a university. State auditors said he never did that lecturing, and a day after saying the payments were legal and proper, Williams announced he would pay back the $8,000 and terminate his financial agreement with the university. The decision by the Dayton Board of Education to buy out Williams' contract a year early came after an unusually long superintendency of eight years, and during a fiscal crisis in a system in which the chief financial officer answered not to Williams but to the School Board. No strong leader leaves a school superintendent's job without also leaving behind strong feelings.
Jeff Mims, who was the Dayton teachers union president during part of Williams' tenure, and faced him in negotiations, said, "the more he functioned as a superintendent" the more he moved toward collaboration.
Joey Williams, an unrelated member of the Dayton School Board during those years, talks of Williams' "strong leadership" and an ability, which occasionally ruffled feathers, to accurately identify areas in need of change. If one were compiling a list of the most important traits for this city's school superintendent to have, those two would be right at the top.
School Superintendent Jerry Weast of Montgomery County, Md., said he did an extensive investigation of Williams' departure from Dayton before hiring him, and is glad he made the hire. Among Williams' accomplishments in Montgomery County, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and the 17th largest district in the country, were crafting a more collaborative relationship with unions and helping increase overall teacher retention while simultaneously increasing the departure rate of incompetent teachers. Student performance -- 70 percent of the district's students are minorities -- benefited, Weast said.
"Basically, James likes kids to learn how to read and write, and he likes them to do that at a high level," Weast said. And Williams riles against those who keep that from happening.
Williams was touted by members of Buffalo's search committee, which included private sector and School Board members, as one of two outstandingly qualified finalists. If he is hired, the board itself assumes a critically important responsibility -- to back him up.
If Williams comes on board with an acknowledged and sought-after ability as a strong leader and change agent, that is precisely what the board is telling him it expects in his performance.