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Buffalo Board of Education President Florence D. Johnson has upped the ante over James A. Williams' candidacy to become the next superintendent, saying "his only opponents" are people with a vested interest in opposing change.

The presidents of key district unions called Johnson's widely distributed letter divisive and heavy-handed. And a former Board of Education president said the district is "playing catch-up" in seeking public support following a "very, very closed" search process.

In a letter to community opinion-makers, Johnson praised Williams' reform efforts in Dayton, Ohio, and called him "a turnaround specialist" who will "build a new culture based on performance, achievement and accountability" in Buffalo.

"He hired outside contractors for non-education related work," Johnson said. "He pushed for merit pay. He's created magnet schools. He weathered a union strike by hiring teachers from outside the district and forced the union back to the table. This kind of reform upsets the status quo, but it's exactly the kind of change we need."

Johnson said the school district is "in a crisis mode," characterized by low test scores and loss of students to charter schools.

"Anyone who cares about student achievement and teacher effectiveness and real change in the district needs to stand behind Dr. Williams," Johnson wrote. "His only opponents are people who have a vested interest in things staying the same."

The Buffalo Teachers Federation has not taken a position on Williams, but BTF President Philip Rumore called Johnson's letter "very disappointing."

"I was absolutely stunned," he said. "The tone of it is really very troubling. It's confrontational. It's almost like: 'It's my way or the highway.' Instead of looking for someone to bring people together, they seem to be looking for somebody to come in here and put a gun to people's heads."

Anthony Palano, president of the union that represents Buffalo principals, said the letter "is probably a shot at the unions" and is hypocritical in light of Johnson's support of charter schools, which costs the district nearly $40 million a year in transfer payments.

"I thought Florence Johnson was better than that," Palano said. "She needs to take a good look in the mirror. She's part of the problem. The district was never aggressive enough to say: 'We're going to make our schools so good that charter schools won't be able to compete with us.' "

Williams will appear at a public meeting from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday in the Makowski Early Childhood Center, 1101 Jefferson Ave.

Williams, who was superintendent in Dayton for eight years before being fired during a 1999 fiscal crisis, will give an introductory talk and then answer questions, Johnson said.

Johnson's letter, written on Board of Education stationery, urges public support of Williams' candidacy.

"We can't afford a 'get-along' chief executive officer," she wrote. "We need a turn-around specialist. We need James Williams."

Marlies Wesolowski, who served previously on the board for nine years, said the district conducted a "very, very closed" search process that prevented it from building support for Williams earlier. That allowed public discussion to center around newspaper stories that highlighted both positive and negative aspects of his career, she added.

"I kind of took the letter as being somewhat defensive of the process and the individual candidate," said Wesolowski, a former board president. "I look at it as an attempt to counter what may be some of the negatives. The district kind of lost its opportunity to be proactive about this, and is in the position of playing catch-up."

Donald A. Van Every, another former longtime board member, said it is impressive that the Board of Education is nearly unanimous in its support. But because the public does not know who the other finalist was, it has no basis of comparison, he said.

"This guy is viewed as best, but you always wonder about the quality of people who came forward," Van Every said. "Buffalo's a tough place to sell. There's nobody with an absolutely clean resume coming into Buffalo."


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