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Questions surround Williams' final weeks; Board plan to name interim superintendent makes some wonder who will be in charge

In the next few weeks, much must get done in Buffalo Public Schools from submitting plans for seven failing schools to getting ready for the first day of classes.

Who will oversee it all?

Superintendent James A. Williams' resignation will be effective Sept. 15, yet the majority of the School Board was ready to terminate him much sooner.

By all accounts, Williams remains in charge -- and just as reliant on his central office staff to continue to, as he so often says, "stay the course."

But the School Board is taking steps to ensure that his last few weeks on the job will put the district on a course the board deems comfortable rather than one he might be inclined to chart on his own.

Louis J. Petrucci, board president, said the board has made it clear to Williams that he is expected to show up for work for the remainder of his tenure.

"Dr. Williams will be here; it's imperative that he be here," Petrucci said.

But some board members, union leaders and others in the community worry about what could transpire in the next few weeks.

"Let's just hope while he's there, he doesn't steer the ship in the wrong direction, so we don't get irrevocably off course," said Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation.

The board is trying to ensure it does not get blindsided by any last-minute turn of events.

"Because we've made this choice as a board [to keep Williams on for a month], it's part of our responsibility now to make sure the decisions that are made now reflect the will of the board and the new superintendent going forward," Petrucci said.

The board is scheduled to appoint an interim superintendent Wednesday. Amber Dixon, executive director of project initiatives, is the presumed choice, although board members say they will review resumes from anyone interested in the position.

To ensure continuity, Petrucci says he plans to ask for Williams' signature, as well as that of the interim superintendent, on all documents from that point onward.

Board members say they hope the overlapping appointment of the interim superintendent and the remainder of Williams' tenure will provide for a smoother transition. But that also has raised some questions about who will call the shots.

Technically, Williams will remain at the helm. But board members want the interim superintendent to take a lead role.

"You can't have two bosses. Whoever's the interim would need to put a plan in place," said Mary Ruth Kapsiak, the Central District board member. "This person can really be involved in the decision-making process."

The district needs to file some papers early next month related to the application for a Choice Neighborhood grant, Petrucci said.

"We need to demonstrate to anybody working on the application that we have the current superintendent signing off on that and the interim signing off on it," he said.

By Aug. 31, the district also must give the state a set of improvement plans for seven low-performing schools. These are not the same as the federally required turnaround plans that are due for those schools by Jan. 1, but a separate requirement of the state Education Department.

In the past, board members have met with limited success in asking Williams to provide them, in advance, with copies of school turnaround plans and other important documents.

Petrucci said the board has requested the plans for the seven schools for Wednesday's meeting, a week before they are due in Albany.

"The board has asked for those to be done by Aug. 24 for the board to review them," he said.

A few board members have expressed fears that changing superintendents would destabilize the district for the opening of school in September.

Principals, however, generally say they're not worried about the superintendent's situation affecting the start of classes. For the most part, they say, neither Williams nor his central office staff is directly involved in that on the building level.

Many, though, say they hope for an indication that the district's brash, top-down management style is about to change.

Several board members have said the majority favors Dixon, who is widely liked and considered easy to work with and eager to listen.

At the building level, principals say that change of tone can't come soon enough.

"The symbolic leadership of that new regime needs to be in place to start the process of change," one principal said. "It's a daunting task. It can't be a one-person change. There has to be a collaborative effort between a consortium of educators. That one-person mentality has got to go."


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