The man in line to become Buffalo's next school superintendent is James A. Williams, who pursued a series of bold reforms during eight years as school chief in Dayton, Ohio, but was then fired during a fiscal crisis.
Before losing his Dayton job in 1999, Williams hired outside contractors to handle work previously done by district employees, pushed for a merit-pay system for teachers, created magnet schools, endured a 16-day teachers strike and sued the State of Ohio for hundreds of millions of dollars, claiming it was shortchanging Dayton schools.
"You've got to push ahead on your convictions," Williams said in a newspaper interview shortly after becoming Dayton superintendent in 1991. "That's a style this entire country -- and especially this city -- should adopt. We're all too passive. We want to sit back and just hope things get better."
The Buffalo Board of Education, meeting in emergency session Thursday evening, discussed Williams for close to two hours behind closed doors, then opened the meeting to announce that he is the "leading candidate" for the job. The Buffalo News learned Williams was in line for the job Thursday morning. Thursday evening's announcement brought an abrupt end to the board's policy of not releasing the names of any candidates until a final choice was made.
Board President Florence D. Johnson said it was decided to scrap that policy Thursday when district officials received "information saying that his name might already be out."
"We asked him (Williams) if he would mind, and he said: 'Absolutely not,' " Johnson said. "We still have some additional information to garner about the candidate, but at this point we are very excited about the possibility of having Dr. Williams come to Buffalo."
In brief comments late Thursday, Williams said he has an "open door policy" with the press and is eager to establish good relations with the Buffalo media. He said school districts fail to have their positive developments reported when they lack a good rapport with the media.
Williams last served as a superintendent in 1999. That's when the Dayton Board of Education voted 5-2 to buy out his contract, which had nearly a year remaining. The buyout cost the district $201,000, even as it faced a $22 million budget deficit.
Johnson stressed that Williams was superintendent in Dayton for eight years but did not mention how his tenure ended. She said an evaluation of his references will continue, and that "we will seek out persons in districts where he has been."
A 1999 analysis in the Dayton Daily News described Williams' departure this way: "James Williams wore his brusque style with pride as Dayton school superintendent, fancying himself as a man who pushed the envelope, cut red tape and got things done. But Williams may have pushed too hard, too far, for too long. Even his backers acknowledge Williams ruffled so many feathers through the years that at last, when a financial crisis hit, his support was too thin to sustain him."
Praised for his courage
To the end, Williams had supporters in Dayton.
"I regard him as a man of vision and courage who understands the challenges of urban education," Mervyn Alphonso, then president of Key Bank's Dayton District, said after Williams' dismissal. "He was willing to challenge the status quo and take risks, and unfortunately it caught up with him."
Lori Crank, then the parent of an elementary school child, thought differently. She said she got no help from district staff regarding a school busing problem and that she was told Williams didn't talk to parents.
"He's pretty much destroyed Dayton schools and their credibility in the community," Crank said in 1999. "He doesn't care about kids at all."
Those divergent views seemed to reflect public attitudes toward Williams.
"James is one of those things -- you either love him or you hate him," Rhine McLin, an Ohio state senator, said during the controversy.
"He really stirred the pot quite a bit," Joey Williams, who served on the Dayton Board of Education while Williams was superintendent, said in 1999. "I just don't know how long you can do that."
Began as a teacher
Enrollment in the Dayton schools was about 27,500 students when Williams was superintendent. Buffalo now has about 38,500 students.
After leaving Dayton, Williams became deputy superintendent for organizational development in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md., in 2000. Since 2003, he has been working for a firm that manages alternative schools for teenagers.
Previously, Williams was a teacher, guidance counselor, assistant principal and principal in Washington, D.C., from 1969 to 1972 and from 1974 to 1986. Williams, who is either 60 or 61, worked for New Jersey's Vineland Public Schools from 1972 to 1974.
He joined the Dayton school system as assistant superintendent for intermediate and secondary instruction in 1986, and became deputy superintendent in 1988.
Newspaper accounts and articles about Williams in professional publications paint sharply contrasting pictures.
The Council of Great City Schools awarded him the 1996 Richard R. Green Award, rewarding leadership, innovation and community involvement. Williams directed $10,000 in scholarship money to his old high school in Norfolk, Va., where he grew up in a poor neighborhood.
"I want to go back and do something in my hometown," he said. "I feel good about it."
In 1994, Williams cashed checks totaling $8,000 for teaching and lecturing duties that state auditors said he never performed. Just one day after saying the payments were legal and proper, Williams announced that he would pay back the $8,000 and terminate his financial agreement with the university.
Williams later criticized the state audits, saying "I think these things are racially motivated."
Although Williams was voted out of his superintendency in Dayton, school officials said his eight-year term there was exceptionally long, given the rapid turnover for urban school chiefs. While at Dayton, Williams was given serious consideration for superintendencies in Atlanta and Durham, N.C.
A 1993 Dayton teachers strike lasted 16 days. Anger lingered for years after that over Williams' proposals for a five-day, money-saving furlough of district employees; merit pay for teachers; and the ability to transfer teachers without regard to seniority.
During Williams' tenure, the district also hired outside contractors to handle computer and technology services, and to oversee district water and electricity use. Electricity bills dropped $350,000 a year, and the Dayton schools received a commendation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"It's one of the best things we've accomplished," Williams told an American Association of School Administrators publication. "The support and expertise of our outsourcing partners allow us to focus on our number one job: educating young people."
Williams earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Virginia Seminary and College, a master of arts degree from the University of the District of Columbia and a doctorate in education administration from George Washington University.
Johnson said the board will continue to evaluate Williams before deciding whether to reverse its previous policy and present him at a public forum prior to voting on his candidacy. The board has been strongly criticized by many community leaders for deciding not to seek that type of public input on finalists for the job.