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Insider likely pick as interim school chief

While the Board of Education waits to finalize its termination of Superintendent James A. Williams' contract, a likely immediate successor has emerged from a small field of candidates, most of them internal.

Several sources on the board say that Amber M. Dixon, a 20-year district employee, is the mostly likely to succeed Williams until a permanent replacement is found.

Dixon, 58, began her career in the district teaching math at School 4, working her way up through a series of administrative posts to become one of the highest-ranking officials in the Buffalo Public Schools.

Certain factions of the business community, along with Regent Robert M. Bennett, have been urging the board to tap Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie for the interim position.

That is unlikely to happen.

"We're looking for someone who already knows the challenges of the district," said Rosalyn L. Taylor, the board's vice president for executive affairs.

A member of Williams' Cabinet for nearly six years, Dixon has ranked among the top half-dozen officials in the district.

As executive director of evaluation, accountability and project initiatives, Dixon, among other things, serves as Buffalo's point person with the state Education Department on a variety of matters, from student test data to implementing reform initiatives.

Dixon has been loyal to the superintendent throughout his tenure, making her closely associated with Williams in some people's minds. At the same time, she is, in many ways, the anti-Williams: native Buffalonian, consensus-builder, soft-spoken, approachable, sources say.

"At this point, after all this craziness, we need a healer," said one longtime principal who asked not to be named. "And out of the exempt employees, I'm not sure there would be anyone but Amber that has the credibility at this point.

"She has seen it firsthand. Amber is going in with a direct scope, and she's lived it. I have no doubt that Amber will make the decisions that need to be made. She's not afraid of that."

Some note that Dixon has never served as a principal and question whether that could prove to be a significant gap in her experience. She leapt from teaching to central office administration without ever running a school.

Along with Debbie Buckley, who oversees grants in the district, Dixon had been responsible for dealing with the outside groups that the board had tapped to run three failing schools. A couple of weeks before the district filed its turnaround grant applications with the state, Williams pulled both of them out of those roles.

The state this week announced it had denied Buffalo's turnaround plans for those schools.

Teachers, principals and community leaders interviewed for this story said the interim superintendent will quickly need to work to reverse the culture of distrust, intimidation and fear that permeates the city's schools. That is widely seen as a feat well-suited to Dixon's temperament.

"I believe that Amber can bring a wonderful and positive improvement to the culture of the Buffalo Public School system," said Mark Mortensen, president and CEO of the Buffalo Museum of Science, whose board Dixon serves on. "Her management style is very inclusive. She wants to achieve successful results. She does not mandate. She listens to people," he said.

What some say may be more challenging for Dixon, though, as a longtime member of the administration, is carrying out the board's wishes to see the central office staff trimmed -- in other words, possibly needing to fire some of her colleagues.

Among the general public, Dixon is a relative unknown.

She generally keeps a low profile. In fact, she was reluctant to talk for this story, noting that the superintendent's contract has not yet been terminated. "Our primary goal is to make sure we open school in September and make sure we make a greater academic impact than we have thus far," she said. "Regardless of who the superintendent is at that time, we have a lot of work to do."

As proof of her ability to produce results, Dixon said she wrote the district's Contract for Excellence plan that extended the school day and school year at 17 low-performing schools. A key part of that plan involved collaborating with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

After four years, according to Dixon, the elementary schools in the group recorded an average increase of 38 percent in proficiency on math tests and 23 percent on English tests.

"It was the most successful collaborative educational program that we did for students," teachers union President Philip Rumore said. "It showed the kind of person that she is -- she managed to work with us and join with us to find a common ground to work to really improve the education of our kids."

A graduate of Holy Angels Academy, Dixon worked for Niagara Mohawk for more than a decade before launching a career in education. She earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education from Medaille College and a master's in math education from the University at Buffalo.

After teaching in the district for 10 years, through 2001, she became supervisor of schoolwide programs and accountability. Four years later, she became acting director of curriculum, then, in 2006, executive director of project initiatives before taking her current position in 2008. The board Tuesday voted, 6-3, to invoke the no-fault termination clause in Williams' contract, the first of a two-step process to bring his time in Buffalo to an end.

The board planned to meet with Williams today to complete the second step in his termination but then learned he is away on vacation. Board President Louis J. Petrucci said the board instead will hold a public hearing at 4 p.m. today in Room 801 of City Hall to get input regarding Williams' situation. Several sources said the board is trying to arrange a meeting with the superintendent for a day next week, possibly Tuesday, to conclude the termination process.

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com

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