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James A. Williams, who is expected to be named Buffalo's next school superintendent, will meet the public at a community forum from 1 to 3 p.m. April 23 in the Makowski Early Childhood Center, 1095 Jefferson Ave., district officials announced today.

The meeting is designed to introduce Williams to the public before the Board of Education votes on his candidacy. "He (Williams) is very amenable to some type of public forum," said Andrew Maddigan, a district spokesman.

Maddigan told the Board of Education Wednesday evening that smaller meetings might also be arranged with "different constituencies," such as an 18-member community advisory board created by the district search committee.

Some community leaders -- including several members of the advisory board -- have criticized the district for not presenting two or more finalists to the public before a decision is made. The district has identified only Williams -- its top choice for the post -- and only after his name was obtained by The Buffalo News.

Also on Wednesday, leaders of the state control board told school officials they would consider lifting the wage freeze it imposed on the district and the city if wage increases could be incorporated in a balanced budget.

"They have to show they have the resources to achieve balance," said Dorothy A. Johnson, the control board's executive director. "I think they're facing some tough choices."

Contract negotiations between the district and its major unions have been at a standstill, and union officials said meaningful negotiations are impossible as long as the district asks for concessions on health care and other issues without having anything to offer in return.

"I can make decisions with my team, but the district has had its hands tied," said Anthony Palano, president of the Buffalo Council of Supervisors and Administrators, which represents school principals. "That (the possible lifting of the cap) is very encouraging. It will allow us to have meaningful negotiations."

Gary Crosby, the school district's chief financial officer, said that possibility "unties our hands a little bit," but has little practical value now with the district facing a $17 million budget gap.

Crosby is trying to convince the unions to accept a single health insurance carrier, saying that would save the district $10 million next year without diminishing health benefits. In addition, he is exploring the possibility that the health coverage can be changed by the district without negotiations.

Would Crosby be willing to tie the health insurance changes to a wage increase?

"From my standpoint, that means we're negotiating with a gun to our heads," Crosby said.

In another matter, Christopher L. Jacobs, an at-large board member, said 55 percent of the district's eighth-grade general education students will move on to high school next year even though they are several grades behind in reading.

When special-education students are counted, the percentage of eighth-graders who are way behind jumps to nearly 75 percent.

"If this isn't a crisis, I don't know what is," Jacobs said. "I don't want to say death sentence, but this is where a lot of these kids are heading."

Both Jacobs and Park District Board Member Jack Coyle said the district should re-examine its practice of promoting students from grade to grade when they're not academically ready.

"Until we set a benchmark, nothing will change," Coyle said. "We just move kids. We have to stop doing that."

Interim Superintendent Yvonne Hargrave said earlier studies showed it would cost $45 million to help district students catch up academically. "You have to give these children the medicine they need, and that costs money," she said.


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