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James Williams: The Long Goodbye

Three years ago we called him a monster. Now we think we'll miss him.

“This is a kangaroo court!” Buffalo school board member Florence Johnson said angrily shortly after the board convened late Tuesday afternoon in a special meeting to consider a motion to terminate school district superintendent James Williams. This was hyperbolically inaccurate. The proceedings were hardly well enough organized to railroad anyone out of a position.

As he arrived for the meeting several minutes earlier, new board president Louis J. Petrucci answered a question about just what was about to happen by admitting he was a little unsure. “This is my first time” at a termination, he offered. He also noted that he had assumed when the motion to hold the meeting was filed on Friday that the matter could be concluded in one meeting, but that he had realized after reading the contract language that two meetings might be required. Particularly since it wasn’t clear Williams intended to show up. “Is he here?” Petrucci asked a journalist. (Another reporter later said the superintendent was seen leaving City Hall shortly before the board met.)

No more than a couple of minutes after Petrucci called the meeting to order, members began to disagree on whether they should go into private executive session. At-large member John B. Licata, who had filed the motion for the meeting, said the business before the board didn’t require an executive session, but, after some parliamentary wrangling, Licata acquiesced in a decision to adjourn in order to hear an attorney give a rundown on the pertinent law.

After more than an hour of closed-door discussion, the board reconvened in public and rather promptly voted 6-3 in support of Licata’s motion to begin termination procedures against Williams. As Petrucci and his colleagues had discovered, clause 16-1,d of Williams’ contract required a vote to invoke it, followed by a meeting at which Williams would be able to make a case for himself, and then another vote on whether to terminate him and pay a $110,000 penalty to him.

Even before the meeting began it was apparent that there were enough votes to invoke the clause and its procedure. Former board president Ralph Hernandez’s beaming face only reinforced this impression. Two previous attempts over the last three months to begin the process had gone nowhere. At the last, on June 27, then-president Hernandez reportedly had gone in thinking he had at least five votes in favor of such a move, but found he didn’t. He publicly blamed Buffalo Teachers Federation president Philip Rumore for working behind the scenes to thwart this action. Earlier in June, Williams had announced his intention to retire in June 2012, two years before his contract would expire. (Rumore denied Hernandez’s the accusation.)

What changed since then to create a six-member majority in favor of termination? Board members were reticent before and after the meeting. Hernandez would only say that two members had satisfied themselves that there was a legal basis in the contract for this result. Licata rather cryptically confined his answer to a statement that he hadn’t been certain that Williams’s June announcement was a valid resignation, and referred any further questions to Petrucci. He in turn said, “You can take your pick of various incidents.”

Rumore was willing to be more specific. While insisting that board members had made up their own minds, he admitted that he had been concerned about a “leadership vacuum” if Williams was let go. But, he said in a telephone interview, in the last month or so, Williams had arbitrarily taken actions that violated union contractual provisions and understandings between the school administration, the board, and the teachers union. He had, Rumore said, refused to honor an agreement to stop trying to make teachers from the closed Campus West school apply for positions at Public School 79 (William J. Grabiarz), where students were being transferred. He tried to add another “exempt” administration position to oversee the implementation of “turnaround” programs at seven low-achieving schools, angering both the union and some board members.

And, the union chief said, Williams had tried to link the hiring of 20 attendance teachers with the union’s agreement to withdraw a grievance over Williams’ dismissal of these attendance teachers several years ago, an improper condition. “This is only a city with about the worst attendance in the Western world!” Rumore said heatedly.

Meanwhile, Williams’ spokesman said his boss was unable to say just when he’d be able to attend a meeting with the board to make his case.

george sax

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