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James Williams to young superintendent candidates: Don’t apply

Four interim and permanent superintendents have come and gone since James A. Williams was forced out as head of the Buffalo Public Schools four years ago.

And Williams knows about the superintendent search now going on in Buffalo – because he’s been getting calls from prospective candidates.

His advice: Don’t do it, not if you are young and on the way up.

“I told them, ‘If you’re 60 years old and at the end of your career, it might be a good move,” Williams said in an interview with The Buffalo News. “But if you’re 40 years old and starting your career, I don’t think it’s a good move – because you’ll probably ruin your career.”

Buffalo has a lot to offer, he told them, but the political minefield can easily derail any young, aspiring administrator.

Three prospective applicants – all from out of state – have called Williams in the last two weeks for information and advice, he said. At least two have applied for the superintendent’s job, despite Williams’ attempts to dissuade them.

“The superintendent circle is very small,” said Williams, now living in Washington D.C., “especially among African-Americans.”

In a phone conversation, a mellow-sounding Williams offered his rear-view mirror assessment of the Buffalo school district, the secret to his own longevity - six years - in the superintendent’s office, and the problems the School Board likely will face in finding a strong leader through its current search process.

Williams thinks the board’s current search process is strange. Williams, now 71, was selected through a lengthy national search that involved a headhunter. He was astonished to learn that some Buffalo School Board members are personally trying to recruit potential applicants.

When he learned that the current board majority doesn’t think the past use of search consultants led to the hiring of anyone good, he chuckled.

The Buffalo School Board is going to have a hard time of finding someone now, he said.

“When you wait that late in the search process, you’re getting leftovers,” he said. “This is a general statement, not about Buffalo.”

By the time Williams left as superintendent, he was under fire for several unpopular decisions, from dramatically expanding the size of his Central Office staff without board knowledge, to his poor relationships with state education leaders and unwillingness to put together acceptable school turnaround plans.

Still, Williams’ six years as head of Buffalo schools is relatively long for an urban school district.

He said the reason he lasted so long in the superintendent’s job was because he had strong administrators to rely on and the political wherewithal to adeptly maneuver among both regular community folks as well as the city’s elite power players.

“It wasn’t just me doing everything,” he said. “I had great support systems in Buffalo. You can see it doesn’t exist now. You’re just recycling people and you haven’t stabilized the top.”

He singled out Gary M. Crosby, his former head of finance and operations, who now serves as CEO of First Niagara Bank, and former Deputy Superintendent Folasade Oladele. Neither was reputed to be chummy with other Central Office staff, but they were accountable and effective, Williams said.

He also enjoyed the general support of the board for many of the years he was there.

“The biggest disappointment I had – I agree it was time for me to leave Buffalo after six or seven years – but they did not plan for the transition,” he said.

Lack of transparency was frequently criticized in Williams’ administration. And though elementary achievement rates rose under Williams, the district’s graduation rate continued to languish, particularly for male minority students.

Before the end, however, Williams was considered a politically astute superintendent who often enjoyed the support of local business leaders, the School Board, and even the leadership of the teachers union. That type of interpersonal politicking and communication isn’t suited to everyone, he said.

While board members may wish to move quickly to fill the leadership void, Williams said picking the district’s next leader takes more than just getting a good vibe.

It takes a strong understanding of what skills a good superintendent needs to be successful. Aside from having a plan for improving academic programs, the superintendent also needs to have a healthy understanding of district operation and finances, he said. That’s necessary in order to hire and retain competent subordinates in whom the superintendent and the board can have confidence.

“You can direct the choir but you can’t sing all the parts,” he said.

Finally, he said, he hopes the divided School Board can come together in its most important hiring decision and bear in mind what matters most.

“I, personally, feel sorry for children,” he said, “because when two elephants are fighting, the only thing that suffers is the grass.”

For more on James Williams and his thoughts on the Buffalo school district, visit the School Zone blog at email: