Some months ago, Amber Dixon realized something: Once you've been the superintendent, you don't go back to being not-the-superintendent.
Now that the Buffalo Board of Education has decided to hire Pamela Brown as Buffalo's next superintendent, Dixon plans to return to her previous position as one of the district's highest-ranking administrators – but only temporarily.
"I'm going to continue working for the district. But am I going to pursue other options? Yes," she said Tuesday.
"I reached the pinnacle here. I've been superintendent. I think what happens next is I'll be in a supportive role, and I don't know if that's the role I want to be in long term."
The board hopes to fine-tune the details of its contract with Brown by July 11. Until then, Dixon will remain in the superintendent's seventh-floor office in City Hall – an office that seems to grow emptier by the day as Dixon gradually packs her personal items into cardboard boxes, awaiting the move back up to her old office on the eighth floor.
Over the next few days, Dixon will work to resolve the 2012-13 teacher evaluation agreement – the state's deadline is July 1.
Aside from that, she is limiting her work to operational issues, she said, so as not to interfere with whatever direction the new superintendent will take.
Dixon's contract as interim superintendent allows her to return to her previous position as executive director of evaluation, accountability and project initiatives, through next June. She said she is grateful to have a job to return to – but emphasizes that she does not plan to stay in that position for long.
Clearly, Dixon is wounded by the board's decision not to hire her for the post on a permanent basis. It took several days after the board's decision before she was ready to talk publicly about her plans.
"There are some devastating elements to this. It's my city, and I want to fix it," she said. "We were poised to sink our teeth into it, and now it's not my teeth that will be sunk into it."
Looking back on her nine months as interim superintendent, she ticks off a list of what she sees as evidence of progress: Teachers feel more respected. The clerical union settled its contract. A teacher evaluation plan was finally negotiated. Central office staff was trimmed. Principals were consulted on many decisions.
Dixon also counts among her accomplishments conversations she had with various groups – from charter schools and Catholic schools to various nonprofits in the community – conversations that she believed were laying the foundation for constructive partnerships.
Over the past several months, she has learned many things, she said. Chief among them: the importance of communication – whether it's responding to an email from a parent, talking to a reporter or educating teachers about what's included in an evaluation plan.
And she's learned just how powerful the status quo is and how long it takes to make even incremental change. It was a difficult but good year, she said.
"Things were broken, and I got to fix them. They may not be sparkling, but I got to fix them," she said. "But the reality is this board has decided the job I did for [nine] months wasn't adequate."
Exactly what Dixon wants to do next is not clear.
Many public school administrators retire at her age – she turned 59 in May, the day the board interviewed her for the permanent superintendency. But Dixon didn't start teaching until she was in her late 30s, meaning she has only 21 years working in the public sector. As a member of Tier 4 in the state's retirement system, her pension would be reduced if she retires before 62.
Regardless, she seems to be looking for a future in the private sector. She talks in general terms about nonprofits, foundations and other groups doing "good work" here and across the country, but she declines to offer any specifics about what sorts of groups or positions she might be considering.
She avoids saying that she's had job offers but says she's had "conversations" about possibilities.
Dixon, a lifelong Buffalo resident, plans to stay in the two-family home she has owned for years, ideally working in a position that would help the city or help public education – preferably both – but not working for the school district itself.
"I swore at the end of this, I wanted to have my dignity intact, and I wanted to have my integrity intact. My beliefs are really important to me," she said.
"My dream job would be one where I get to put my beliefs into action, much as I've been able to do here; where I get to make order out of chaos; where I get to serve the community on some level. It's important to me to serve the community."
During a meandering, nearly two-hour interview, Dixon emphasized again and again her commitment to Buffalo and her interest in serving the city. Once or twice, though, she left open the door to working in another community – but one within the region.
She is clear about one thing.
"Do I want to be a superintendent someplace else? No," she said. "My interest is not to travel the country and be a superintendent outside of Western New York. My wish would be to continue supporting this city. That would be my dream."?