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City School Board to flex muscle on turnaround plans As patience with Williams runs out, Hernandez takes initiative before Albany deadline

The Buffalo Board of Education, vowing to take a stronger role in reorganizing city schools, this week is expected to announce that it will decide on any school turnaround plan before it is considered at the state level.

Board President Ralph R. Hernandez said board members are running out of patience with School Superintendent James A. Williams' consistent refusal to provide them information or let them influence key decisions in the district. So on Wednesday, Hernandez will introduce a resolution requiring the board to approve the school turnaround plans.

"Then Dr. Williams has no choice," Hernandez said. "They can't say, 'You're not required to sign this.' If they want us to approve the plans, they better get them to us in a timely manner, or they're not going to get board members voting for them."

Hernandez's resolution is all but guaranteed to be approved, as six of the other board members on the nine-member board have agreed to co-sponsor it with him.

Williams has provided the board only minimal information regarding the district's plans to turn around nine low-performing schools. Those plans are due in Albany by May 9 -- and board members still have not seen the plans.

Administrators have said the board does not have to approve the plans -- but Senior Deputy Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. made it clear when he was in Buffalo last week that the state would have a hard time approving those plans without buy-in from the board, as well as other stakeholders in the community.

Hernandez told King that the superintendent consistently withholds information and blocks the board from participating in major decisions.

"[King] just looked at me, and he said, 'You're the board. File a resolution, and get it done. If you want [the superintendent] to respond a certain way, if you have to float a resolution to make that happen, then do it,' " Hernandez said.

Last week, Hernandez directed administrators to provide the school turnaround plans to the board by the end of the week. That didn't happen.

District officials have also refused to provide other key information to the board.

For instance, during a meeting March 30, Hernandez asked Williams for copies of reports from a review team with which the district contracted to visit the low-performing schools and issue observations and recommendations.

"We're not supposed to share the [Joint Intervention Team] reports with you," Williams said. "That's supposed to be a confidential process."

Hernandez responded: "But nothing is confidential when it comes to the board."

Williams said: "Ralph, tell the feds that. I'm in total agreement with you."

But a spokesman for the state Education Department later confirmed that federal regulations did not in any way prohibit the district from providing those reports to the board.

The district eventually did provide the board those reports -- two weeks later -- but warned board members that the reports were "confidential" and not to be shared with the media.

Some board members question how committed Williams is to turning around Buffalo's schools. He frequently acknowledges the district's low overall graduation rate and its even lower graduation rate for black males. He's quick to point to issues beyond the district's control -- from the widespread poverty of Buffalo students to state and federal rules governing school turnarounds -- but he has been short on solutions, board members say.

"It's not as though he's been handed this problem. Hasn't he been around for a few years?" said at-large board member John B. Licata, who was one of two board members to vote in June against extending Williams' contract. "He's not the new kid on the block. He's got all the exempt employees that he's wanted."

"How can you say the district is a failure if you are the person leading it? If it's a failure, then I think comments should go beyond that -- to what are we going to do to move it forward?" said Mary Ruth Kapsiak, vice president for student achievement. "You certainly can't do that without the input of the board, and keeping the board in the dark is not helping anything."

In June 2010, the board voted to extend Williams' contract through 2014; it had been set to expire this year.

"From the way he's been talking to [the media], he doesn't want to be here. That's the feeling I'm getting -- he wants out," Kapsiak said. "It's almost as if he's alienating the board to the point where they will do something [to terminate his contract]."

Prior to coming to Buffalo, Williams served as superintendent in Dayton, Ohio, where the board in 1999 voted to buy out his contract, at a cost of $201,000. A district spokeswoman said he had back-to-back meetings Monday and was not available to comment for this article.

In recent months, Williams has consistently denied rumors that he is trying to find a job elsewhere.

Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele, however, has been publicly named as an applicant in one search. The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently reported that Oladele was one of 126 applicants hoping to become Cleveland's next superintendent.

"The Cleveland job did not attract marquee personalities like former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee," the paper reported earlier this month. "A sample shows such names as Buffalo Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele" and other applicants.

e-mail: mpasciak@buffnews.com