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Tenure marked by battles, animosity

James A. Williams is leaving Buffalo much the same way he arrived: in a fight.

When he arrived in 2005, he immediately engaged in a battle with the unions representing teachers and administrators in the Buffalo Public Schools.

At the end, he's still in a fight with the unions -- along with some influential people in the business community, state Education Department officials and even many members of his own School Board.

Williams' superintendency was a six-year fight with no winner.

Almost as soon as he got into town -- the darling of the business community, who liked his brash management style and willingness to take on organized labor -- he went head to head with local unions.

In short order, Williams called teachers union president Philip Rumore a liar and threatened to take him into an alley and beat him up. Administrators union president Crystal Barton accused Williams of making racist comments against African-American principals.

While the outright animosity between Williams and the unions died down, both bargaining units remain without a current contract.

When Williams reflected on his tenure on Wednesday, after submitting his resignation to the board, the one disappointment he cited was the lack of progress in working with the unions.

"We didn't change the thinking of our collective bargaining units," he said. "We still have the same contracts that existed in 2005 when I arrived here, the same issues. That's very disappointing because we are hurting children when we are not making those adjustments."

In recent years, Rumore and Williams had worked out what both claimed to be a solid working relationship, with the two talking often about district issues. But in the past week or so, Rumore reversed course, and the Buffalo Teachers Federation executive committee voted no confidence in Williams.

After Williams announced in June that he intended to retire in a year, Rumore said the superintendent "went back into his old ways."

"He does not know how to find a common ground," Rumore said. "I don't think he can help himself. He's combative. He wants to beat you."

Only board members know for sure how much influence the BTF's change in stance had on their push to oust Williams -- and most have little to say on that front.

But clearly, the superintendent's handling of turnaround plans for Buffalo's persistently lowest-achieving schools did not win the confidence of state officials or his own board.

State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. declined to comment on Williams' superintendency, but criticized the district's failure -- after two years -- to submit acceptable plans for turning around Lafayette High School, saying it was "an indictment of all the adults involved."

"I am quite frustrated with where things stand," King said. "We have been very clear that we need plans we have confidence would change the performance of the school, and we still don't have that." Some board members said the state's most recent rejection of Buffalo's turnaround plans was the final straw for them with Williams' tenure.

"The fact that we were rejected by the state is a clear indication that we're not doing the right things locally to make sure these schools are effective," said Ralph R. Hernandez, the West District board member.

Board members also have cited as major cause for concern the drop in Buffalo's four-year graduation rate, to 47 percent, along with the district's recent stagnation in elementary and middle school test scores.

Williams said that during the first few years he was in Buffalo, the district saw steady improvement in its elementary and middle school math and English test scores. But when the state changed its scoring system last year, the city's results seemed to take two steps back.

It's the backward movement, not the progress beforehand, that is at the forefront of many community leaders' minds.

"That 26 percent proficiency rate in English that just came out on the standardized tests is an example of everything that's wrong in our school district," said local developer Carl Paladino, the most vocal business leader to criticize the superintendent.

But concerns during Williams' tenure have not been limited to union issues or questionable academic progress.

About a year after he arrived in Buffalo, the district hired a Maryland firm, ResulTech, to run Buffalo's alternative high school. Two years later, it became apparent that the $6 million the district spent on the program had not been a solid investment.

The board fired ResulTech in December 2008, and the program there was deemed an expensive failure.

Williams came under fire for the way he handled allegations of improprieties surrounding a student suspension at McKinley High School. Critics said his response was typical, as he tried to keep the situation from becoming public.

The superintendent also was roundly criticized for ignoring allegations that an aide had molested a child at Discovery School.

And accusations of favoritism erupted at City Honors three years ago, calling into question the way the administration handles admissions at its top high school.

In the last year or so, it seems that one concern in the district followed closely on the heels of another.

Williams jeopardized $42 million in federal grants to turn around failing schools by refusing to move the principals out of three schools. That prompted then-state Education Commissioner David M. Steiner to come to town and meet privately with Williams, who then announced he would follow federal guidelines.

Since then, Williams has drawn criticism for doubling the size of his central office staff during years when teachers and other union staff were cut. This summer, board members balked when he tried to add an administrator while more than 100 teachers got pink slips.

In May, Buffalo made national news when the district's parent group called a one-day boycott of school to protest the city's four-year graduation rate for black males, which hovers around 25 percent.

In addition to the results the district has seen in recent months, the superintendent's leadership style itself has alienated the very people he reports to: the Board of Education.

On several occasions, he has withheld key information from board members either entirely or until the last minute.

That, apparently, hasn't changed.

Minutes after the board voted to accept Williams' resignation on Wednesday, board President Louis J. Petrucci asked a Buffalo News reporter how she had gotten a copy of King's Aug. 9 letter to Williams explaining why the state rejected the district's turnaround plans for three failing schools. The News posted a copy of the letter on its website this week.

Hadn't Petrucci received a copy from the superintendent?

"No," he said. "I got it when I read your story."

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com