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The right move; Focus must now shift to finding the best successor to Williams

It shouldn't have taken as long as it did, but James A. Williams did the right thing for all concerned Wednesday when he submitted his resignation as superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools. His departure will help to remove a roadblock that has been hobbling crucial efforts to improve the education of Buffalo's ill-served students.

The resignation takes effect Sept. 15, but the terms -- "previously agreed upon" -- will not be disclosed until next week. They may be troubling. The board accepted Williams' resignation in a 7-2 vote. The two holdouts, Board Members Ralph A. Hernandez and Christopher Jacobs, expressed concerns about the separation agreement. That may have to do with health insurance or some other issue, but in any case, the city control board, which has authority over the school district, must approve the plan. It needs to look carefully.

Still, the fact is that this change was needed, as an accumulation of evidence shows, the most recent of which is in the district's dismal test scores. But there has been plenty more, including the district's failure to produce workable plans to turn around its persistently low-achieving schools -- potentially costing the district millions of dollars in government funding -- and, not insignificantly, Williams' own persistent insolence with the School Board.

Several things are needed now and the first will occur next week, when the board is scheduled to appoint an interim superintendent. That seems likely to be Amber Dixon, who oversees accountability in the district and who has support from several board members.

A strong appointment is needed to ensure that the new school year begins with the least possible disruption. Whoever is appointed needs to make use of the support system that is available, including Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie and the state's new education commissioner, John B. King Jr. Both are experts and both have made plain their availability and desire to help.

More critical for the long term is a search for a permanent successor to Williams. That task is liable to take time and the School Board needs to employ help in that task. Board members lack the expertise to conduct that kind of search, which needs to be broad, including existing school officials and non-typical candidates.

No doubt, the task is difficult. Absenteeism, a retrogressive teachers union, lack of parental involvement and grinding poverty are just some of the factors that stand in the way of a superintendent focused on student achievement.

But improvement is possible. Other urban school districts are able to serve their students better than Buffalo has managed. The Baltimore School District last year won a national award for excellence in urban school district leadership.

The work has to begin with a superintendent who sets expectations of performance but who also insists on professionalism in the district -- including his relationship with teachers and principals.

But Buffalo's problem doesn't begin or end with the superintendent. The board, itself, has been a problem. It was initially prepared to let Williams linger for another year in his post. It has, thus far, declined the help that Ogilvie has offered without offering a plausible reason. Meanwhile, the potential of Buffalo's students is being squandered. The board needs to get out of its own way -- and out of students' way -- but long term, the answer may lie in setting standards for who can serve on school boards.

At least this drama is coming to a close. It was urgent that Williams not hang on as a lame-duck. While board members worried about the disruption of losing Williams just as a new school year approached, the greater worry was another year of aimlessness, lost opportunities and forfeited funding.

We wish Williams well as he prepares to begin a new chapter, but more than that, we wish competent, visionary leadership for a school district whose students are suffering.

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