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Weimer’s success at Emerson gives edge for top job

On any given day, the restaurant at Emerson School of Hospitality – a popular lunch spot for Chippewa district professionals – bustles with customers.

Students do everything from prepare the food, to serve it, to cash out diners. It’s all part of Emerson’s career-focused program that aims to equip students with skills they can use in the hospitality industry.

And the program yields results. Its most recent graduation rate was 85 percent. It is also one of the most in-demand public schools in Buffalo.

That success, many say, can be attributed to Principal James G. Weimer Jr., the apparent top prospect to be the next Buffalo Public Schools superintendent.

“I’ve always been impressed with his ability to work with kids and work with staff,” said Marlies A. Wesolowski, a former School Board member who knew Weimer when he was a teacher. “He’s a good leader in his school.”

The board majority could, as early next week, approve a deputy superintendent who would ultimately move into the top spot when interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie leaves in a few weeks. And while Ogilvie technically nominates someone for deputy, it appears that Weimer, 53, is the board majority’s favored candidate despite other names floating around.

And all eyes will be watching the process, from business and political leaders jockeying to take over the city schools, to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, which is handling a complaint against the district.

Already, Weimer finds himself in a politically tough spot, with the board divided on whether it should appoint someone from within the district without conducting a national search. Even some of Weimer’s supporters question whether it’s wise to make the jump from the principal’s office directly to the superintendent’s job, without any Central Office experience.

Those who know Weimer, however, say it is nothing he couldn’t handle.

Weimer declined to comment on the possibility he would assume the post. He is one of about 10 candidates to apply for the deputy superintendent’s spot, including two other internal candidates: Will Keresztes, associate superintendent of student support services; and Genelle E. Morris, assistant superintendent of accountability.

Weimer, a North Buffalo native who graduated from Canisius High School and Canisius College, built his career at Emerson High School.

He started there as a business management teacher with a focus on food service when the school was located on Sycamore Street and offered various vocational programs. When the school decided to open the restaurant at 70 W. Chippewa St., he was chosen to oversee the project. He became principal in 2002.

Since then, the school has undergone five expansions and is now one of the highest demand schools in the district, so much so that applications far outpace the number of spots available. About 660 students applied – more than 2½ times the number who applied for a seat at City Honors School – for a space at Emerson for this school year. But each year, the school enrolls only about 150 students.

The high demand is driving the district to create Emerson annexes, including one that will open this fall and ultimately be relocated to the Larkinville district.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Philip Rumore said his impression is that staff at Emerson work well together, and the union receives few grievances from there.

Although some say the fact that students have to apply to the school – the application includes recommendations from teachers – skews its results by attracting more committed students, Emerson fares well. Its most recent graduation rate of 85 percent was one of the highest in the district, and Emerson is one of the district’s relatively few schools in “good standing” with the state. The results come with a student population in which 71 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunches and about 25 percent have disabilities.

Former New York State Board of Regents member Robert M. Bennett, who has worked closely with Weimer on career programs, said the principal has instilled a sense of confidence in the community that a Buffalo school can, in fact, be successful.

“I don’t think it’s much of a secret that he stands out among the more successful schools,” Bennett said. “He’s got the business and industry leaders excited about a Buffalo school expanding.”

Several members of the School Board majority have said they favor a principal who has not been tainted by the bureaucracy of the Central Office when looking for the next superintendent. A principal, they say, would know the school system and the players but have a more direct connection to classrooms.

Wesolowski, who served on the School Board for nine years starting in the 1990s and was involved in the hiring of several superintendents, said that those who had experience at the district level tended to fare better.

“Anyone going from being a principal to Central Office, there’s a large learning curve they have to go through,” said Wesolowski, who now runs the Matt Urban Human Services Center. “It’s an issue of scale.”