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Change must come from ground up

Buffalo Superintendent James A. Williams has multiple degrees.

Most of the 23,000 black and Hispanic students in the Buffalo Public Schools he oversees will be lucky to get a high school diploma that means anything.

James A. Williams made some $220,000 a year.

The vast majority of the kids will never see that much, except when cash is waved in a rap video.

With his education and years of pulling in big salaries, James A. Williams should be living on Easy Street the rest of his life.

The life awaiting most students of color who leave the Buffalo Public Schools will be in a community that has no such address.

So before African-Americans start bemoaning the successful effort to run another black man out of town, they need to first answer one critical question: Who's the real victim in the Buffalo Public Schools fiasco?

With Wednesday's School Board vote, Williams is about to follow former Buffalo State College President F.C. Richardson and former school Superintendent James Harris down the rail that black men get run out of Buffalo on.

In one sense, you could call it progress. Getting axed is merely the flip side of opening up leadership positions to African-Americans. It comes with the job. When they fail, they get canned just like whites.

Except that Williams' very contentious ouster is not like the departure of prominent white leaders, including predecessor Marion Canedo, who presided over the same failing system but with little of the blowback. That difference will rankle many blacks, as will the perception that those orchestrating Williams' departure -- including some who've demonstrated a genuine interest in urban kids -- are white.

It's one more reminder -- how many does a smart city need? -- that if Buffalo's civic leadership were more diverse, we wouldn't keep stumbling down this path.

But there's one more reason Williams' departure is different from Canedo's: He behaved differently. His supersized persona practically guaranteed that the end would not come quietly. When you defy the state and feds, risk millions of dollars, talk about beating up a union leader and disparage a board member for "craziness," you don't get a gold watch and a cake.

Still, Williams' obstreperous style was part of his appeal. I liked him from the first time he came storming into The Buffalo News to complain about something I wrote -- even if he didn't know what he was talking about. I thought he was the shake-up artist this dormant city needed.

But it's clear now that Buffalo is quake-proof, at least from the top down. While leadership matters, individuals -- even without Williams' mistakes -- are no match for entrenched forces here.

That means progressive change in Buffalo will have to come from the ground up. You can see it on the waterfront, in the activism of groups like the Partnership for the Public Good, and especially in the rise of the school system's District Parent Coordinating Council.

To the degree that Albany's bureaucracy or school unions -- with their grip on everything from after-school building use to cosmetic surgery insurance -- are the problem, parents are the only ones with the standing to take them on.

Things will be calmer once Williams leaves; but that does not mean they will be better. Change doesn't just happen; people have to make it happen.

On Sept. 15, Williams will take the money and walk. Most district students have no such option. Their plight, not his, deserves whatever outrage this community wants to muster.


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