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Board decides against ousting Williams; Members opt not to consider measure triggering school superintendent's removal within days

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams survived an effort to oust him Monday when the Board of Education opted not to pursue action against him under the "no-fault" termination clause in his contract.

Williams announced June 1 that he plans to retire next June -- two years before his contract expires -- but the board met Monday to consider a measure that could have triggered his removal within days.

It was somber in Room 801 of City Hall at noon as a huge media contingent and just a few residents and administrators waited for all the board members to arrive for the meeting.

Nearly half an hour later, South District member Louis Petrucci was the last to file in. The board voted immediately to go behind closed doors to discuss the superintendent's contract.

After meeting privately for 45 minutes, the nine board members emerged for a brief announcement from President Ralph R. Hernandez.

"We had a very amicable and very cordial discussion about whether it would be appropriate to address the issue of Dr. Williams' no-fault clause," he said.

"We are obviously confined and required by law to not reveal any of the confidential information from executive session. It is the will of the board at this point in time that we will not, at this point in time, pursue Dr. Williams' termination."

A frustrated Hernandez vowed never again to bring up the issue of the superintendent's termination, citing the personal toll the issue has taken on Hernandez and his family. He also said he will not seek re-election to a third term as president of the board.

Various members of the community called him in recent days -- at all hours -- to lobby one way or another regarding the superintendent's future, Hernandez said.

"I presented everything I could to bring this issue to the table, and it just didn't happen," he said.

Hernandez said there were enough votes going into the meeting to terminate the superintendent's contract, but by the time the board emerged from executive session, the necessary five votes had dissolved.

He pointed to behind-the-scenes lobbying by the teachers union president as a major reason the majority bloc fell apart.

"Who has the power in this district? It is not the board. It is [Buffalo Teachers Federation President] Phil Rumore and Dr. Williams. They have the power in this district. They rule this district," he said.

Although many people believe Williams and Rumore are often at odds, he said they operate as allies more often than not.

Rumore said he did not influence the outcome of the board meeting.

"To think that I have this power, that board members are going to do what I say, is absolutely absurd and an insult to the board," Rumore said. "I had talked to board members, but I wasn't purposely calling them for that. There were a number of issues we were discussing. When I was asked, I just said when you make a decision, you make a decision. The superintendent is going to retire in a year."

He said the board should focus on launching a search to find Williams' replacement.

After the board's announcement Monday that it would not vote on taking steps to terminate Williams' contract, several board members said the group was able to work toward resolving differences regarding the future of the district.

"We wanted to make sure the board came out as a united group on behalf of the children in the City of Buffalo," said Sharon Belton-Cottman, the Ferry District representative who has been on the board for just a few weeks.

Mary Ruth Kapsiak, the veteran Central District board member, added: "I think it was good. We had a chance to sit down and [have a] dialogue in executive session about what's important in moving the district forward."

But some board members were not enthused about the outcome of the board meeting. Christopher L. Jacobs said the graduation rate is disappointing.

Petrucci said he had been hearing a number of concerns from his constituents in South Buffalo regarding Williams staying on for another year. Among them: public statements Williams had made indicating he thought the next superintendent should be black.

"My constituents want [a process that is] more race-neutral," Petrucci said.

He said other concerns included the year's salary and benefits that the board recently approved for outgoing Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele, along with the recent drop in Buffalo's four-year graduation rate -- from 53 percent to 47 percent.

Those are not the only issues that the board and Williams must grapple with over the next year.

While the city spends $22,000 per student -- more than any district in the region -- results in the poverty-plagued Buffalo schools are worse than any district in Western New York.

Poor student attendance looms as a major obstacle.

One-third of high school students miss at least 20 percent of school days in a given year -- the equivalent of seven weeks of school, according to a recent study by the district. And more than two out of five kindergartners miss more than three weeks of school.

Student outcomes are significantly worse for many minority students. Only 25 percent of Buffalo's black males graduate in four years with a Regents diploma -- a figure that has become a focus for the increasingly vocal and active parent group in the district.

Williams refused an interview request from The Buffalo News.

Several board members acknowledged Monday that the district has a long way to go.

"We need to put Buffalo back on the map, and getting those scores up will do that," Kapsiak said. "People will want to move here."

But when it came to specifics regarding how the board plans to get there, most board members offered little, aside from saying the board needs to hold candid discussions in executive session more frequently.

Rosalyn Taylor, the East District board member, offered the most specific suggestion. "New board leadership," she said. The board Friday will elect a new president and two vice presidents.

Several board members cited the need to not discuss what transpired in executive session.

"You can't say anything about it. That's the law," Hernandez said.

But that's not exactly true, according to Robert J. Freeman, executive director of the state's Committee on Open Government.

Freeman said that while board members have the option of discussing such matters in executive session, there is no legal reason they must do so behind closed doors.

Discussing the superintendent's contract differs from discussing specific students, for instance, he said, because a federal statute -- the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act -- specifically protects student information, while there is no such statute regarding the superintendent's contract.

"It's one thing to disclose information that pertains to a student that's protected by statute. It's another thing to say, 'Shut up or else,' if you talk about the superintendent," he said.

Freeman noted that a decision by a past state education commissioner prohibits school board members from disclosing "confidential" information disclosed in executive session.

However, that ruling has no basis in case law, Freeman said, and he questioned whether it would hold up to a challenge in court.