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Williams Resignation Comes as State Denies Funding for Troubled Schools

Filed under: Education & Schools

When the Buffalo Board of Education’s special public meeting reconvened at 1:15pm on Wednesday after a private executive session of over an hour, members immediately turned to the business that had brought them together: a proposal to end the employment of school superintendant James A. Williams.  With almost no discussion, they voted 7-2 to accept Williams’ resignation, effective September 15.  Last Tuesday, the board had voted 6-3 to invoke the no-fault clause in the superintendent’s contract and begin a three-step termination process.  Had this been completed, the district would have been liable for a $110,000 severance payment to Williams.  His resignation after the closed-door meeting between him, his lawyer, and the board ended the termination process, which almost certainly would have succeeded.

Interestingly, two of the three board members who filed the motion to terminate—West District member Ralph Hernandez and At-Large member Christopher Jacobs—voted against the resignation and retirement agreement.  (The third, John B. Licata, voted with the majority.)  “I just think we could have done better,” Jacobs said after the vote.  Hernandez said he agreed with that assessment.

Just what the agreement’s terms are, however, remains something of a mystery, for at least the time being.  Board members said they weren’t at liberty to discuss them because of a seven-day information blackout that’s part of the settlement.  This was designed, according to board president Louis Petrucci and board legal advisor Karl Kristoff, to allow Williams time to reconsider the agreement.  Presumably, it involves a payment of at least $50,000 because Petrucci acknowledged during a press conference that Buffalo’s fiscal control board has to confirm the terms under its authority to approve or reject any city expenditure of at least that amount.  (In a curious sidelight, and an even more curious reading of New York’s Open Meeting law, Kristoff told Artvoice that even after the elapse of the seven days the press and members of the public would still have to file a formal freedom-of-information request to obtain the agreement’s terms.  Hernandez, on the other hand, said the details would be made public before “very long.”)

This tentative ending to the superintendent’s tenure brings to a prospective resolution months of conflict, irresolution, and unsuccessful efforts, spearheaded by Hernandez, to terminate Williams well in advance of his retirement, announced two months ago, in June 2012.  This would have been two years before the expiration of his contract.  Board members have been close-mouthed about what recent events transpired to give Hernandez his sought-after majority.  Facing a news media phalanx after the meeting, Petrucci would only say, “We didn’t fire him,” and that various unspecified matters had arisen that led to Williams having “lost the confidence of the board.”

Several sources in and around the board have cited the August 9 letter from state education commissioner John  B. King, Jr. in which he rejected Buffalo’s application for federal Race to the Top funds to reform three of the city’s seven persistently low achieving (PLA) schools.  King’s letter told the district that its proposed plan for Educational Partner Organizations to run the three PLA schools was inadequately drafted, “lacked appropriate performance targets,” and didn’t meet state requirements.

This very problematic development seems to have been compounded by Williams’ failure to share the letter with board members, including Petrucci.  He told Buffalo News reporter Mary Pasciak—who, like Artvoice, had got a copy from the state—that as of Wednesday’s meeting time, he still hadn’t received a copy from Williams’ office.  (Artvoice’s effort to obtain a copy from a senior administrator was thwarted when, she said, Williams told her by phone that she couldn’t send one.)

And Williams’ public response to the state rejection couldn’t have shored up his support on the board.  He told the press last week that the district should consider turning all seven PLA’s into charter schools, or that the board should revert to one of his previous proposals to replace one-half of the three schools’ faculties and their principals, ideas that are unpopular with board members.

Perhaps by then he was ready to throw in the towel and didn’t feel it was incumbent on him to make realistic suggestions.

george sax