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James A. Williams could begin work as Buffalo school superintendent as much as a month before his official starting date of July 1 in order to get a jump-start on a series of key issues, school district officials said Tuesday.

In addition, several Board of Education members are pushing for a contract funded entirely by the district and not dependent on money from banker Robert G. Wilmers. They feel that would avoid the perception that Williams answers to anyone but the board.

Interviews with board members showed that Williams solidified his already strong support in a series of recent appearances here, including a public meeting Saturday.

"He has shown that he has the intelligence, the patience, the stamina and the will to improve Buffalo schools," said Ferry District board member Betty Jean Grant, who initially favored another candidate. "If he can do what he says he's going to do, I'm on board."

"The more I see him the more I like him," said Jack Coyle, the Park District representative.

Williams and the board are working out contract details, and it remained unclear Tuesday whether a final package will be ready for board action at a meeting this evening.

"Both sides are working toward getting it done as quickly as possible, but I don't know if Wednesday is a feasible target date," Andy Maddigan, a district spokesman, said Tuesday. If not, he said, the contract might be approved at the next scheduled board meeting May 11 or at a special meeting before then.

Several board members said they are hopeful the contract can be funded entirely from the district budget and not depend on a salary supplement from Wilmers, president of M&T Bank.

The board voted last October to accept Wilmers' offer to fund the superintendent search as well as an undisclosed salary supplement for up to five years. In return, Wilmers helped choose three members of the seven-member search committee.

Advocates of Wilmers' involvement said it would help attract top candidates. Opponents said it would make the next superintendent indebted to a business leader or at least create that appearance.

"I think we're all hoping to be able to fund this without any support from the private sector," Catherine Collins, an at-large board member, said Tuesday. Coyle and Grant echoed those sentiments.

Collins suggested that contributions from Wilmers might be used for other district purposes.

Although Williams would officially begin his term July 1, he and board members have discussed starting in early June -- at least on a part-time basis -- to get involved in curriculum planning, union contract negotiations, assignment of school principals and other ongoing issues.

Maddigan said arrangements might be made for Williams to work for Buffalo several days a week prior to July 1. "He's a quick study, but he'll be the first to admit he has to learn more about some crucial issues," Maddigan said.

Ralph Hernandez, the board's West District representative, reiterated his intention to vote against Williams' appointment.

Hernandez said he is unimpressed by Williams' record while he was superintendent of the Dayton, Ohio, schools and said he and other board members were kept in the dark about the superintendent search.

"I see my vote as a reminder to people that they can't keep treating us like that," he said.


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