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Williams long ago lost effectiveness

James Williams on Tuesday got a stay of execution. But all signs show that the end is near for Buffalo's school superintendent.

"The votes are there [for termination]," said board member Jason McCarthy. "I don't see anything changing."

Frankly, I do not know what the board is waiting for. The large man with the outsized ego outlived his effectiveness a while ago. Lately the outrages increased exponentially, making it seem as if Williams had a professional death wish.

The board needs to grant it.

Williams two months ago crafted a $168,000 golden parachute for Folasade Oladele, his handpicked top deputy. He again rewarded mediocrity by preparing a soft administrative landing for Florence Krieter, who failed as principal of Burgard High School. His reluctance to pull the trigger on turnaround plans for seven failing schools has left hanging hundreds of parents, kids, teachers and emergency educational responders -- and now threatens $24 million in aid.

It makes me wonder whether Williams is even paying attention, in a district where class size is inflating, test scores have flat-lined and 104 teachers just got pink-slipped. The next superintendent, whoever it is, has a long to-do list.

One huge order of business, to my mind, will be to change the climate of intimidation that permeates the district. Williams placed blind allegiance ahead of competence as an unwritten but understood condition on district job postings. It damaged morale, it fed a culture of mediocrity, and it prompted countless teachers to run for the early-retirement exit.

Williams was brought here seven years ago by power broker Bob Wilmers of M&T Bank with the unstated but understood mission to find ways around union rules that protect bad teachers and roadblock reform.

On that score, he notched some victories. He turned summer school teachers into lower-pay, part-time workers. He attracted corporate sponsorships. He revived middle-school sports. He alternately applauded and scapegoated charter schools, which -- at best -- give school choice to parents who cannot afford to move to the suburbs or to pay for private school.

But his admitted indifference to detail, his insistence on surrounding himself with suck-ups -- often of dubious qualification -- and his padding of administrative staff all but force-fed parents, students and taxpayers a steady diet of outrage.

His legacy is littered with misjudgments. His pet program failed to turn around the Alternative School for wayward kids. He jettisoned attendence teachers in a district notorious for student no-shows. His perceived sympathy for kids suspended several years ago for beating up a teacher sabotaged rank-and-file morale (disclosure: My wife is a Buffalo teacher). He allowed the McKinley High debacle -- centered around a vindictively long student suspension -- to fester for months.

I know he has an impossible job, running an urban district where union rules slow-track change, the schools are filled with kids from damaged families, and the state -- despite the baggage many Buffalo kids carry -- does not grade city test scores on a curve. When the best predictor of a kid's success in school is his parents' income and education, then No Child Left Behind becomes a cruel joke. However unfair, those are the standards an urban superintendent has to deal with.

At best, running the district is an Everest-like climb. Which is why there is no margin for error at the top. That is something to keep in mind, as the Williams Error comes to a close. It is not just the parents, teachers and taxpayers who deserve better. It is the kids.


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