James A. Williams, in his first public appearance in Buffalo, went back to the classroom Saturday, teaching an overflow crowd about everything from the danger of hiccups to the distinctive governing style he plans to bring to Buffalo.
Two things about the presumed new Buffalo school superintendent seemed clear at the two-hour-plus meeting, which attracted an overflow crowd of about 200 people, roughly two-thirds of them district employees:
Student achievement will be, far and away, his No. 1 priority, and he won't accept any excuses for not improving student performance.
A James Williams superintendency won't try to tackle 15 to 20 issues, he said. Instead, he will focus on three or four, after working collaboratively with the School Board and the community.
"But we're not going to negotiate student achievement," he vowed. Speaking later of the absolute need for a rigorous curriculum, he added, "That's going to be the glue that brings us together."
Williams has a strong administrative style he won't abandon when he comes to Buffalo.
"I know the game," he said. "I've played it before. I'm not a rookie."
The Williams style includes lots of collaboration, reaching out to the community to help set the agenda he will lead.
He's gone into the housing projects, because that's where students and their parents live. Three Sundays a month, he goes to different churches. And he pledged to spend lots of time in the schools; he does his desk work at night.
"My style is coming to you, because most of you are not coming to the board meetings," he said. "This is the type of person you're going to get."
Saturday's event, at the Makowski Early Childhood Center on Jefferson Avenue, wasn't a time for harsh criticism of Williams. At times, his remarks had all the earmarks of a sermon, with his "parishioners" repeatedly murmuring "Amen," "uh-huh" and "all right, now" following some of his comments.
Little opposition to Williams surfaced during the 90-minute question-and-answer session. At one point, he took note of that, joking, "I do want somebody to come up who doesn't like James Williams."
Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore, who has been known to tangle with school officials, stood in the back and didn't ask any questions.
"I think he handled himself with dignity and honesty, and I think it was a rather impressive presentation," Rumore said.
Williams obviously has a strong personality, but he suggested that the district needs collaboration to accomplish anything, Rumore said.
"If that's going to be the hallmark of his superintendency, I think that's a step in the right direction," he added.
Rumore did take issue, though, with the secrecy of the hiring process. He questioned why the community couldn't have met the top two finalists before the board made its choice.
"I think the secrecy process was a disservice to him," Rumore said.
Earlier, Williams had addressed that issue, hailing the process that the school district used.
"This board and this search committee, believe me, it was done professionally, with respect and dignity," he said.
"I'm not your superintendent yet," he added. "We have not signed a contract. But that is minor."
Williams, a dapper, crisply dressed man whose "Daddy" was a preacher, opened the meeting by apologizing for his voice. For four days, while in San Diego at an educational conference, he suffered from the hiccups. Then, before assuring everyone that he was fine now except for his voice, the former Washington, D.C., teacher taught the crowd about the three possible serious risks of persistent hiccups: heart attack, blood clots or colon problems.
"They checked me out, everything was negative, and now I'm ready to be your superintendent," he said.
In his 40-minute introductory remarks, Williams quickly tackled the controversies that have clouded his imminent appointment as Buffalo's next superintendent.
Of his 13 years in Dayton, Ohio, the last eight as superintendent, Williams said he left by mutual agreement. He took issue with the reported $19 million deficit he left, saying the correct figure was $3.3 million in his last year there. He explained that he reimbursed the $8,000 he had made as an adjunct college professor, following questions that were raised about that role.
He also presented a quick slide presentation to show the gains in student achievement made by Dayton students. Some education experts have labeled his student-achievement record in Dayton uneven, with only small incremental gains.
Williams promised that he will be accessible to the news media.
"I want the good, the bad and the ugly to be reported," he said. "I want the balance."
It was Williams' style that was the star of Saturday's show, as he demonstrated with his pointed, sometimes colorful answers on certain issues.
Before he was even asked, he gave his take on charter schools.
"Here's how you get rid of charter schools," he said. "Improve the public school system. It's a law. We can't change it. The one thing we can do is change the way we educate our children in the public schools. When we turn this system around, they will come back."
Williams also brought up the topic of collaboration and teamwork in working with union leaders.
"When two elephants are fighting, the only thing that's suffering is the grass," he quipped.
At one point, Williams asked his wife, Linda, to stand up and explain his style.
"What you see," she told the crowd, "is what you're going to get."