It appears that James G. Weimer Jr. no longer wishes to be the board majority’s handpicked choice for superintendent of the Buffalo Public Schools.
His change of heart comes after an angry and contentious meeting Wednesday night, where parents, teachers and community members hurled insults at him, board members and at each other. Some went so far as to say the board majority’s superintendent selection process would result in the kind of civil unrest that broke out in Baltimore, where rioting occurred after the death of a black man in police custody.
The Emerson School of Hospitality principal has also been confronting the loss of key members of what he thought would be his leadership team. And he apparently was troubled by his wife being dragged into the public discussion because she had previously done legal work for board majority member Carl P. Paladino, one of those pushing for his appointment.
“Jim is feeling very damaged and exposed from last night, and in general,” interim Superintendent Donald A. Ogilvie said Thursday. “I think Jim, to his substantial credit – he’s a standout high school principal, he’s respected by his colleagues – honestly considered this because he wanted to bring focus to instruction in this district.”
Ogilvie added, however, that it is unlikely Weimer had an understanding of how high-pressure the superintendent’s position can be.
That was highlighted in brutal detail Wednesday night in what has been described as one of the worst board meetings in recent memory. The wrath of dozens of angry people – parents, teachers, community leaders – unfurled for hours. Many of them had come into the Buffalo Academy for the Visual & Performing Arts auditorium from an earlier rally in which more than 200 representatives of public education advocacy groups, community groups and union supporters decried the superintendent search process.
Speaker after speaker hurled disparaging remarks at the board majority members, chastising them for excluding the public and the four members of the minority bloc from the selection process for a new superintendent. Angry public remarks got more and more applause as the public speaking session progressed.
“We’re not going anywhere,” one protester loudly warned the majority bloc.
“Don’t think you can keep treating us any kind of way and there not be consequences,” yelled another.
In many instances, the criticism took on racial overtones. Board member Theresa A. Harris-Tigg and several other speakers made references to the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., as audience members cheered. They warned that similar episodes could happen in Buffalo if the board majority excludes the minority bloc and the community from the selection process.
The few speakers who spoke in favor of Weimer’s appointment were booed and heckled by most audience members, who drowned out their remarks in some cases.
“I didn’t realize I’d be addressing a Communist Party rally,” Weimer supporter Dwayne Kelly told the audience.
At another point, condemnation rained down on another Weimer supporter who asked the crowd if they were booing him because he’s white.
Many critics questioned why Weimer didn’t voluntarily come forward to present himself to the public. The attacks also grew personal, with some describing his qualifications as “worthless” and a “joke.”
Others, including board member Sharon M. Belton-Cottman, said Weimer was nothing more than a yes man for the board majority. They also questioned his success at Emerson, saying that as the principal of a school with admissions standards, having students who excel isn’t a miraculous accomplishment.
Board President James M. Sampson repeatedly banged his gavel, trying to maintain order, but majority members did not try to defend Weimer.
“I think Weimer was bothered most about exposing his family and the supposed connection of his wife to Paladino,” Ogilvie said. “I think it was, pure and simple, ‘If this is what this is all about, then I’m not going to do it.’ ”
Weimer did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
District Parent Coordinating Council President Samuel L. Radford III said Weimer needed to understand that sharp criticism comes with a job that requires strong public relations and political skills.
“If he can’t handle this little bit of pressure, he ain’t seen nothing yet,” Radford said. “This is relatively minor, compared with what it’s actually like being a superintendent.”
Further complicating the matter is the fact that some key members of the leadership team Weimer was hoping to bring together appeared to be backing out of their original commitments in light of the political landscape, including the possibility of mayoral control of the schools.
Greg Mott, principal of Grabiarz School of Excellence, was among a group of district principals originally considering a role in Weimer’s future leadership team. But Mott, who might be considered a serious leadership candidate under any future superintendent, has backed out.
Others have apparently also signaled some hesitancy in recent days, possibly in light of Ogilvie’s intention to press for the reappointment of 10 other current district administrators in his Executive Cabinet. During Wednesday’s board meeting, Ogilvie insisted that the need for some consistency in the Central Office is key to keeping the district functioning in the days ahead.
“There are any number of activities and projects in process that these 10 individuals are inextricably involved in,” he said. “Whether the next superintendent is Jim Weimer or somebody else, the district needs them, and the superintendent will rely upon them.”
Ogilvie did succeed – despite strong objections from Paladino – in appointing three other lower-level administrators to the Central Office on Wednesday.
He added that he understands Weimer’s desire to surround himself with principals who want to make things better for schools.
“I think that’s what drove all these individuals who have admirably clustered around Jim,” he said, “but if they’re dropping off, then I think Jim goes, ‘Oh, this is a problem.’ ”
If Weimer ultimately closes the door on being considered for superintendent, Ogilvie said, he will still be needed by the district to run Emerson and its school expansion, which will begin this fall with a new ninth-grade class at the vacant School 28. The district is ultimately planning on moving the second school, currently called the “Emerson Annex,” to Larkinville.
Weimer has unparalleled credibility with the business community and area employers, Ogilvie said.
“We need him where he is,” Ogilvie said. “I feel badly for what he’s endured personally, but I’m relieved and very confident that he’s going to do an outstanding job in very important work.”
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