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Loss of faith in Williams reaches critical stage With schools plan due, he skips key meeting

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams is losing the confidence of a growing number of influential people, many of whom complain that the district botched its plans for the city's failing schools and consistently mishandles other long-standing issues confronting the system.

Among those losing faith in Williams are most of the stakeholders in the district: School Board members, parents, teachers, much of the business community, the local Regent and perhaps even the state Education Department.

The dissatisfaction with Williams reached a critical stage late last week, when the No. 2 person in the state Education Department came to Buffalo for a fact-finding mission to see how the school district is going to deal with nine of the city's most troubled schools. Final plans are due May 9.

Twenty-five people were invited to meet with Senior Deputy Education Commissioner John King Jr. in a series of sessions Thursday. Only one person on the invitation list failed to show up: Williams.

"This meeting was important for Williams to show up to. He's the key player. He should have been there," said Board of Education President Ralph R. Hernandez. "Staff said he flew out first thing [Thursday] morning. I think he did it to avoid the meeting. King flies in here Wednesday just to be here, to have a discussion with us. And Williams can't stay? Come on."

Many of the people who spoke with King last week say they believe the next two weeks will be a do-or-die time for the district -- and for Williams.

If the turnaround plans are not successful, not only could the district lose millions of dollars in federal funding -- it could risk state takeover of those schools.

And if Williams fails to revamp the school turnaround plans to satisfy stakeholders, he risks losing the supporters he has remaining.

The school turnaround plans, though, are not the only cause for concern. Nearly half the district's students fail to graduate from city schools, even though the district spends more than $22,000 per student a year.

"The performance of the schools is really troubling," King said in a phone interview Friday evening. "Clearly the performance is not what anyone would want."

Buffalo schools have long faced problems common in urban districts.

The pervasive poverty in the city introduces a host of challenges, from a lack of basic skills in young children to students of all ages living in situations where day-to-day survival often takes precedence over doing homework or even attending school.

Those issues are nothing new.

What has changed since Williams took the reins in 2005, many say, is how Buffalo responds to those challenges.

"Nobody is proud to be part of the Buffalo Public Schools," said Katie Campos, executive director of Buffalo ReformED, an education reform group that has been working closely with parents in the district. "The superintendent is the one person at the top of the district who could create the culture where people are proud to be part of the system. He's proven that he can't."

After nearly six years under Williams' leadership, teachers complain that while some test scores have improved, student attendance and discipline problems in many schools have grown worse.

Soon after Williams arrived, he cut dozens of attendance teachers, whose job was to make sure students attended school. Hundreds of students each year fail to return to school in September, and many schools lack the staff to track them down.

The administration tries to dictate and micromanage what happens in the classroom, without understanding the specific challenges that come with working with kids in urban schools, teachers say. Many say the superintendent's disdain for teachers seems to grow by the day.

"It's obvious he has no use for us," said one veteran high school special-education teacher.

Backlogs and cutbacks in special-education services have many students going months without the services they need. Many immigrant students find themselves in schools that are ill-equipped to meet their needs.

"We have the right mission, putting children and families first to ensure high academic achievement for all. The question is, do we have the right leadership to achieve that mission? Right now we don't have any evidence that that's happening," said Samuel Radford III, vice president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

> A questionable plan

While dissatisfaction with the city schools has been simmering for some time, it seems to be reaching a boiling point over the district's plans to turn around nine of its lowest-performing schools.

The stakes are high.

The future of thousands of students hinges on those plans, along with up to $54 million in federal funds just for the nine failing schools.

Williams' administration has chosen a turnaround model for most of those schools that requires moving at least half the teachers out of each building -- a strategy that district officials acknowledge has not been proven to improve student performance.

It's hard to find anyone -- outside of Williams' upper administration -- who supports the plans to move teachers. The teachers union is planning to protest Wednesday in front of City Hall. Parents are circulating an online petition. Board members have warned that moving so many teachers will throw the district into chaos.

And support for a May 16 boycott of city schools continues to grow. At today's Easter service in True Bethel Baptist Church -- one of the largest congregations in Buffalo -- the Rev. Darius Pridgen is expected to call on the 3,000 people at the service to pledge to keep their children out of school that day.

A district spokeswoman said Williams could not be reached to comment for this story.

However, in recent weeks, he has said the district's hands are tied with moving the teachers because the federal government provides only a few models for schools to use for turnaround plans -- and notes that the May 9 deadline to submit the plans to Albany is quickly approaching.

However, administrators have known for months they would need to submit turnaround plans.

"Everyone's been aware since at least this time last year that this moment would come, that there would be another set of schools and the need to have another set of plans in place," King said.

But it wasn't until the past few weeks that district officials gave any indication to the Board of Education what those plans might look like -- in even the most general terms.

That's typical.

Williams routinely keeps the board in the dark on key issues, board members say. It's not until a deadline lies just around the corner that he provides them with any information -- and at that point, board members often feel they have no choice but to approve whatever Williams submits, because there's no time left to revamp anything.

Hernandez last week directed the administration to provide the board with those plans for the nine troubled schools by Friday. School district officials ignored his directive.

"If this is put in front of us a day or two before the board meeting, it's not fair to the board," said Christopher L. Jacobs, the board's vice president for executive affairs.

> Another option

Concerns over the turnaround plans prompted Regent Robert Bennett to ask King to come to Buffalo. King met with five small groups on Thursday in the Oishei Foundation offices downtown. Among those he talked with: the mayor, business leaders, union officials, parents and college presidents.

"The poor results within our district are clearly affecting the quality of life in this community and the out-migration of the city," said Robert Gioia, president of the Oishei Foundation, which hosted the meetings with King. "We need to change that. It's incumbent upon the board and the administration to come up with a plan to change that."

Many of those who attended meetings with King on Thursday say they feel encouraged -- in part because King made it clear the state wants to help, and in part because state officials provided information indicating that the district does not have to settle for massive teacher transfers.

State officials offered more flexibility that many hope will prompt the district to explore a turnaround option predicated on having an outside group take control of a failing school.

But it's unclear whether administrators are interested in revamping their plans -- and even if they are, only two weeks remain before their deadline.

King offered to do whatever he can to help. "I tried to emphasize in all conversations with stakeholders that, if they are willing to commit to lock the doors and meet together until we have a plan everyone feels is right for kids, I'm willing to be there," he said.

> Crucial two weeks

Many agree that the next two weeks will be crucial to the future of the district -- as well as the superintendent.

The state is all but demanding that everyone from the parents to the teachers and the unions have the opportunity to speak directly to the district's plans for those schools -- and be heard. That's something that Williams has specifically avoided doing for months, many say.

If the district fails to submit successful plans to turn around the failing schools, King noted that the state has the authority to revoke the schools' registration and take them over. That's something the state has never before done in a district.

"I left Buffalo hopeful the stakeholders will come to a productive resolution together so we can avoid a situation where the schools' registration would be in jeopardy. I am hopeful that we won't come to that difficult moment," King said.

The coming weeks will determine whether the district will be able to avoid finding itself in such a situation.

"I would characterize the filing of those plans as probably the biggest decision the Buffalo Public Schools has faced in several years," said Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie, the commissioner's liaison to this region.

"This is a watershed time. If the leadership and those who are served by that leadership don't connect, the viability of the district is at stake."

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com