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'In your face' no more James A. Williams has cooled his rhetoric, become more diplomatic

James A. Williams produced instant headlines when he took over as superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools in 2005.

He chided Board of Education members for acting "like a bunch of clowns," was charged with making racially and sexually offensive remarks to a female union president and allegedly criticized black high school principals while praising their white colleagues.

Williams called President Philip Rumore of the Buffalo Teachers Federation a "snake in the grass," compared him to former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and talked about taking Rumore out in the alley to "kick him in the rear end."

But the outbursts have stopped and -- according to his allies and critics -- Williams' demeanor has changed substantially of late.

"The superintendent used to say: 'I'm an in-your-face guy,' " said Ralph Hernandez, a Board of Education member who had several run-ins with Williams. "That's diminished a great deal. He's not in your face anymore. I think he's realized that a little humility, a little respect, can go a long way."

At a gathering last week that included Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and other high-ranking state officials, Williams praised Rumore for his cooperation in crafting an $11.2 million academic improvement plan.

Earlier in his tenure, Williams responded to public comments at Board of Education meetings by walking to the spectator section and making his points in expansive, preacherlike fashion. Now he's more likely to remain in his seat at the board table and keep his comments far more focused and low-key.

Yet Williams is hardly subdued.

He's intense and impatient with what he views as obstacles to needed change. He clearly enjoys his commanding public presence, sometimes refers to himself in the third-person and views himself as a symbol that poor kids in Buffalo -- and children of color -- can find success through education.

"This is a mission," he said. "This is not a job. It's a mission."

But Williams is boosting his chances of improving student achievement by emphasizing a more diplomatic, statesmanlike style, said Robert M. Bennett, chancellor of the state Board of Regents.

"I think it dawned on him that public explosions don't get anything done," said Bennett, a strong supporter of Williams. "So why do it? He probably heard this from a few people: 'Cool it.' "

People who deal with Williams on a regular basis cite these reasons for his new approach:

Now that he's been here nearly three years, he can no longer portray himself as an outsider coming in to correct the mistakes of his predecessors. The honeymoon is over, and the problems are his.

The Board of Education that hired him was solidly in his corner, and Williams could count on overwhelming board majorities supporting his academic and financial initiatives. A new board is now split, and Williams has to work much harder -- and more diplomatically -- to patch together a five-vote majority on major issues.

Several key staff members -- the people Williams relies on most heavily -- told him privately that his controversial comments, especially those involving Rumore, were hurting his cause and playing into the hands of those he was upset with.

"We need to keep this from getting personal," is the way one top aide characterized the advice about Rumore.

>'It's my show now'

Williams acknowledges all those explanations have merit and that faulting previous administrations is no longer a legitimate approach. "It's my show now," he said. "I've been here three years. You can't blame anyone else. I take full responsibility."

Williams maintains that his previous outbursts were not spontaneous expressions of frustration, but purposeful moves to bring attention to his agenda for change. That agenda includes pay raises in return for contractual givebacks, a longer school day and school year, and enriched academic, athletic and extracurricular opportunities for students.

"You have to get the attention of the people," he said. "I'm talking about the employees, the students, the community.

"This community was just stagnant," Williams added. "We were sinking on the financial side. We were sinking on the academic side. People are now understanding what we're trying to do."

Hernandez, often a lonely voice of dissent on the previous Board of Education, is now chairman of an influential board committee and the potentially pivotal vote on key issues. He feels his improved relationship with Williams springs from that dramatically different political landscape.

"I think he's mellowed out because he doesn't have the five votes," Hernandez said. "We're communicating with him more than we did in the past. I see him as a more calm person, a person willing to accept the ideas of others. He's more receptive to dialogue."

Williams agrees that his relationship with the splintered board is more of a challenge.

"You have to be a little more patient," he said. "You have to work harder and work smarter. You have to bring people together. Fortunately, I was blessed with those skills."

Rumore disagrees, saying Williams is "ruining the morale of the school district" by imposing paperwork and curriculum demands on teachers without their input.

"It's all 'do this and do that,' " Rumore said. "Everybody keeps heaping things on. The approach is: 'What can we do to make things miserable for you?' "

Rumore said he has productive working relationships with Williams' top aides but doesn't trust the superintendent and feels that any changes in his style are entirely cosmetic.

"If there's a difference in tone, that's not really important to me," he said. "I would say we have no relationship at all with the superintendent."

Williams is "a very strong leader" who is fueled by his concern for children, said Gary M. Crosby, the district's chief operations and financial officer.

At a recent meeting with principals, Williams said a boy asked him if he would come watch him play baseball and was thrilled when the superintendent actually showed up.

>'He really cares'

"The superintendent's message to the principals was: 'You can make a difference, too, even if it's with one child at a time,' " Crosby said. "He really started to tear up. His voice was cracking. He really cares."

Bennett said Williams' commitment to children "is very, very strong," and that his modified style will help him achieve his goals.

"It's 'we' rather than 'me' telling you what to do," Bennett said. "You've got to do it in a collaborative way. Otherwise it simply won't work."


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