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Daunting task <br /> Interim school superintendent has many urgent problems to tackle

First things first: Congratulations to Amber Dixon, who will become Buffalo's interim school superintendent after James A. Williams steps down on Sept. 15. She is facing a large and challenging task, but things are almost bound to improve. Such was the destructive liability that Williams had become.

Here are three descriptions of Dixon from people who know her: consensus-builder, soft-spoken, approachable. All are important qualities in a leader of a system as diverse and sprawling as the Buffalo City School District. Williams is none of those.

Appropriately, Dixon, who was a member of Williams' cabinet, is being named only an interim superintendent; the selection of a permanent successor to Williams will require a diligent search. But Dixon must be more than a place-holder, and judging by her comments, she understands that. Many urgent tasks await her. They include:

*Meeting the Jan. 1 deadline set by Education Commissioner John King to submit revised turnaround grant applications for Buffalo's seven persistently low-achieving schools -- and to recognize that more schools may be added to the state's list. Under Williams' direction -- or lack of it -- Buffalo recently lost out on $6 million in turnaround funds for three of those schools and could forfeit up to $12 million more just for those three over the next two years.

*Ensuring that the children don't suffer in the new school year because of the inevitable disruptions that are inherent in a change of leadership. Indeed, it should be her task to ensure that the new school year is better than previous ones. Not all of the factors are under her control -- there is only so much a superintendent can do about unsupportive parents -- but she can certainly do a better job than Williams of inspiring teachers -- and students -- to their best work.

*Making it plain to the School Board that there is no shame in reaching out for help, especially at a time when the district is struggling through uncharted territory. Experienced and exceptional educators have offered their assistance to the district. They include King and Erie 1 BOCES Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie, but the School Board has shown no interest. Failure to seek their input can do nothing but hurt students. Indeed, it would be a sign of continuing dysfunction.

Dixon comes to this position with a broad range of educational experience. She began her career teaching math at School 4. After 10 years, she began a series of administrative posts that led her to Williams' inner circle and, now, to the pivotal job of interim superintendent. She has promised to work with all elements of the community in putting her stamp on the district.

Of course, changing an entrenched culture requires more than consensus-building. It also requires spinal steel. Both are among the qualities the board should be seeking in what needs to be a wide-ranging and national search for a permanent superintendent. The board needs expert help in conducting that search and should already be looking to engage those professionals.

We don't know if Dixon is interested in the permanent appointment, but she will have an unrivaled opportunity to demonstrate her suitability in the coming weeks and months. Here's hoping she does a terrific job but also that she is no more than one of many potential candidates who can help this suffering school district finally do right by its students.

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