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James A. Williams has strong support from Board of Education members to become Buffalo's next school superintendent, but contract negotiations have been put on hold until the board reviews the results of ongoing reference checks.

"We want to make sure we're getting who we saw on paper and in person," said Catherine Collins, an at-large board member. "We want to make sure we have the right candidate for the job."

The board initially planned to consider its strategy for contract negotiations at a meeting this evening, but that schedule has been pushed back while Heidrick & Struggles, the board's search firm, explores references provided by Williams and interviews others who worked with him in previous positions.

"We're going to wait for the reference report," said Florence D. Johnson, board president. "The board will go over that and go forward from there."

Board members did not provide a timetable, referring that and other questions to Denise Hanlon, the North District board member who is heading the search committee. Hanlon did not return a phone call seeking comment.

A survey of board members showed strong support for Williams, who was superintendent in Dayton, Ohio, for eight years before he was fired by the school board there in 1999 during a fiscal crisis. He then served as deputy superintendent in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and currently works for a firm that manages alternative schools for teenagers.

Vivian Evans, the East District board member, said the school system desperately needs "creativity and innovation," which she said Williams could provide.

"From what I've seen in his resume, from what I've seen so far, it seems to me he has the qualities we need in this district," she said.

"I think he's an excellent candidate," said Janique Curry, the Central District representative. "I think he'll do a great job here."

But Ralph Hernandez, the board's West District member, said he plans to vote against Williams, saying he was not convinced of his ability to work with staff and board members. Hernandez also said his initial review of pupil performance in Dayton while Williams was superintendent shows "up and down" results.

"Is this the best we can do?" Hernandez said. "I'm not sure it is. I just feel we ought to keep looking. I think he's a fine gentleman, but in my opinion he has yet to prove he is up to the task."

Betty Jean Grant, the board's Ferry District representative, said she initially favored the other finalist, who has not been publicly named, but will support Williams unless something "unethical, illegal or immoral" is turned up.

"I have not seen anything that would cause me to have any kind of hesitation," Grant said.

Several board members said they were not troubled by Williams' firing. The Dayton board voted 5-2 to discharge him, even though the better part of a year remained on his contract.

"It happens to superintendents across the board," said Curry, who described the departure as a decision by Williams to leave Dayton. "He was there for eight years. Basically it was a dispute between him and the board. I don't see anything wrong with that."

Christopher Jacobs, an at-large board member, said he was "very supportive" of Williams and liked his assertive approach to reform.

"I'd rather have someone who's aggressive and has to tone it down sometimes, rather than someone who has to be pushed to act," he said.

Grant called for a meeting to give members of the public an opportunity to question Williams before the board acts on his candidacy.

Williams said in an interview last week that "the next step is to take James Williams to the community," and that he would "stand there for four, five, six hours and answer any questions that people have."


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