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Williams resigns as superintendent; Board Approves Buyout
Deal allows schools chief to avoid termination

Months-long turmoil over the future of Superintendent James A. Williams came to an end Wednesday afternoon when the Board of Education voted, 7-2, to accept his resignation, effective Sept. 15.

The board struck a deal with Williams that the superintendent and more than one board member said allowed him to "leave with his dignity."

Last week, the board initiated proceedings under the no-fault termination clause of his contract. Rather than risk termination -- which seemed all but certain after last week's 6-3 vote -- Williams resigned for the purposes of retirement.

He said he looks forward to moving on to other work, but not as a superintendent.

"James Williams is a household name all over the country. I've received hundreds of calls. I'm very well respected," he said. "I'm leaving with dignity. I'm leaving with happiness -- with a resume that would stand up against anyone who's sat in this seat in the history of Buffalo."

The board met behind closed doors with Williams and his attorney for more than an hour. When the public meeting resumed, prior to the board's vote, there was no discussion about the resignation, aside from two brief comments from board members who opposed the terms of the package.

Later in the meeting, two board members praised the superintendent's service.

"Dr. Williams has been here for the children of the City of Buffalo for six years," Board President Louis J. Petrucci said.

He noted improvements in Buffalo schools under Williams' tenure, including the addition of advanced placement courses in many high schools, an expansion of the athletic program, and heavy investment in classroom technology.

"I think his work will speak for itself," said Florence Johnson, the superintendent's strongest supporter on the board. "He has worked diligently to try to create a culture in the community and in the teaching profession that children deserve a quality education. And for that, I thank him."

Sharon Belton-Cottman, who represents the Ferry District, said she did not want to see the superintendent leave so close to the start of school in September. Nevertheless, she voted in favor of accepting his resignation.

"I've never been for letting the superintendent go at this point, and that's not changing," she said. "But since this is a democracy, the votes exist and we have to move forward and get on with doing board business."

Board members said they were not allowed to disclose the terms of the separation agreement, but said it would become available to the public in seven days.

Had Williams been terminated, he would have been entitled to six months' severance pay, or $110,000. His contract does not provide for such a lump sum if he resigns, however.

Petrucci acknowledged that Williams' buyout is subject to the approval of the city control board -- meaning the package must exceed $50,000.

In June the board approved a $215,000 buyout for former Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele -- which the control board deadlocked on. The Board of Education ended up renegotiating her buyout and approving a $49,900 package, just $100 under the amount that triggers the need for control board approval.

At-large board member Christopher L. Jacobs and West District board member Ralph R. Hernandez voted against accepting Williams' resignation, saying they objected to its terms.

Last week, Jacobs and Hernandez were in the six-vote majority that sought to initiate termination proceedings against the superintendent. During that initial vote last week, three board members -- Johnson, Belton-Cottman and Rosalyn L. Taylor -- voted no, saying the timing was bad and that the district needed more stability so close to the start of school in September.

After Wednesday's meeting, in an interview, Jacobs noted that the superintendent's contract ensures the district will contribute 60 percent toward his health insurance for the rest of his life if he retires from Buffalo. Jacobs said that by his reading, Williams would not get that benefit if he were terminated.

"It comes out to a significant amount of money every year," Jacobs said. "I thought we could have done better for the district on the financial end."

During a group interview with journalists after the board meeting, Williams said he would leave it up to the community to determine how effective he was in Buffalo. The measure of a leader's effectiveness is not known until two or three years after he leaves, he said.

"I'm just hoping the person who will sit on this seat will build on what we accomplished and not tear it down," Williams said.

The board will appoint an interim superintendent at Wednesday's board meeting, Petrucci said. There has been no formal process to solicit, interview or screen candidates for the position.

However, several board members have said they would like to see central office administrator Amber M. Dixon take the reins for the immediate future. Currently the executive director of evaluation, accountability and project initiatives, Dixon started her career as a math teacher.

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com