If Buffalo didn't already know, it learned the hard way: Superintendents matter, and bad ones can do damage. That's why this is a pivotal moment in the crucial task of improving the future for the city's students.
Leaders are always going to be lightning rods, but former superintendent James A. Williams was his own thunderstorm. He was extraordinarily confrontational from the start, and by the end of his six-year tenure, teachers and principals were thoroughly intimidated and dispirited. He insulted School Board members and concealed critical information from them. Even his supporters on the board ultimately agreed he had to go.
Now the district is looking for a permanent replacement after having named Amber Dixon, who was Williams' executive director of project initiatives, as a temporary successor. Dixon has made a strong start and deserves serious consideration for the permanent assignment -- assuming she wants the job -- but as the board evaluates candidates for the job, and at risk of appearing to oversimplify the issue, one quality should stand above all others: leadership.
Indeed, leadership is never simple, especially in Buffalo, home to an abundance of naysayers as well as one of the nation's most difficult heads of a teachers union. But it is that ephemeral quality that has made a difference as urban school districts have fought their way toward improved performances by their students.
That, of course, is the goal. The superintendent's No. 1 task is to set expectations and create the conditions under which principals and teachers are best able to help their students learn. They do that through accountability, encouragement and, as one telling report put it, the creation of "leadership teams focused thoughtfully and relentlessly on improving the quality of instruction."
That observation came from a report by the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, whose mission is "to focus academic research, public education and innovative outreach activities toward eliminating achievement gaps."
In assessing how 15 high schools improved their performances, the report looked at leadership teams that "took public responsibility for leading the charge to raise achievement."
It observed that those teams " demonstrated commitment through hard work and long hours; they studied research-based literature to expand their knowledge and competence; they persevered to follow through on the promises they made; and they found ways to remain respectful of peers, even when asking them to improve their performance."
Instilling that culture in Buffalo schools falls largely on principals; they are the leadership boots on the ground. But it can't happen unless the superintendent sets the direction. The superintendent has to have the compass.
That is especially true in the distrustful aftermath of the Williams years. Dixon -- or her successor, if someone else ultimately fills the position -- needs to be sure that her principals know she expects to see that kind of activity, and then to ensure they have the training and the tools to do the job.
The superintendent, of course, can't function optimally without the confidence of the School Board. As the district's budgeting and policy-making body, the board needs to keep the reins in its hands, but if it always has to grip them tightly, then something is wrong. Either the superintendent can't be trusted or the board can't help micromanaging -- or both. Neither condition augurs success.
The board hopes to hire a permanent successor for Williams by the end of June. In the meantime, watch Dixon and the School Board for signs of confidence or distrust. If it's the former, good things could come of it; if it's the latter, probably not.
Third of six editorials . Tomorrow: Principals and teachers