The hiring of James A. Williams as Buffalo school superintendent is no longer a near-certainty, as three Buffalo School Board members Thursday raised concerns about Williams' negotiating stance.
They said that Williams' salary requests may be unaffordable and that he is seeking to answer to board President Florence D. Johnson rather than the full nine-member board.
Williams' current request is for salary and compensation in the high $200,000 range, board sources said.
Catherine Collins, an at-large board member, said she will support Williams only if he scraps his proposal to report directly to Johnson.
"The board is the boss," Collins said. "We want a relationship with this person. How do you build a relationship with someone who's only dealing with one of nine people?"
In separate interviews, East District member Vivian Evans, West District member Ralph Hernandez and Collins all questioned whether the school district can or should meet Williams' salary demands.
Some of those objections may be satisfied in future negotiations and do not necessarily signal deep trouble in contract talks. And those publicly expressing concerns represent a minority of the nine-member board, supporters of Williams said.
"I think most of the board members are very enthusiastic (about Williams)," said Christopher Jacobs, an at-large board member. "I remain optimistic. I think we have to let this work its way out."
Both Williams and Denise Hanlon, who heads the board's search committee, declined to comment on negotiations Thursday, saying they are confidential and being handled by attorneys.
"I can't talk to you about the contract," Williams said. "That's not fair to them (board members) or anyone else."
Even so, the concerns represent a significant change from just a few days ago, when Williams was riding a wave of widespread enthusiasm generated by a series of public appearances here and seemed like a clear choice as the next superintendent.
In contrast, Collins said Thursday: "If I have to go back to the drawing board for another search, I'll be committed to that."
Evans said, "I don't know if we can afford to have an outsider come in."
"We're not Westchester County or Scarsdale," Collins said. "We're Buffalo, N.Y. I'm one who looks at what we have to pay in this district. We've got to make sure we can afford Dr. Williams."
Former Superintendent Marion Canedo was making $171,600 when she retired last June. That figure does not include fringe benefits, but sources said her total pay package was far less than what Williams is seeking.
The board could ease the salary burden by accepting the offer of Robert G. Wilmers, president of M&T Bank, to provide an undisclosed supplement to the superintendent's salary for up to five years. But even though the board accepted that offer last October, several members are now determined to avoid private funding.
"We really want our superintendent to be independent," Collins said. "We don't want to create the impression that he's answerable to anyone other than the Buffalo Board of Education."
Hernandez, who has opposed Williams' candidacy since it was first announced, said it is time to look elsewhere.
"I think we ought to suspend our negotiations with the gentleman and begin the process of finding a superintendent we can be proud of," he said.
Evans said she still backs Williams, but the bargaining positions outlined Wednesday evening in closed-door session make her question the search process.
"I don't feel we did our homework," Evans said. "We should have been better prepared. If you don't start with a solid foundation, sometimes you end up with a broken one."
Park District member Jack Coyle, who supports Williams, said board members not accustomed to the rough-and-tumble, time-consuming nature of contract negotiations sometimes see initial differences in a more dire light than necessary or take those differences personally and hold them against the candidate.
"We have to make sure the contract is good for the district," Coyle said. "That's not instantaneous. It takes time. We're talking about pages and pages of terms and conditions. This is not just buying a loaf of bread at the corner store."