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Are Lunatics Running The Asylum? And the Buffalo Public Schools, too?

This is part 2 of a series. If you have not read the previous article, “Who Is James A. Williams?” you can find it here.

The Memphis Blues

With great fanfare, Buffalo Public Schools Superintendent James A. Williams withdrew his name two weeks ago from consideration for the job of Memphis school superintendent. He had been a finalist for the position. “I need to stay here and continue…to offer the children of Buffalo the best education possible.”

Nicely said. But soon after scheduling an interview in Memphis for May 19, Williams probably realized his job prospect was D.O.A. The Memphis Commercial Appeal, a daily with a circulation slightly under 200,000, had for days been referring to him as “embattled” Buffalo superintendent James Williams, and they were planning a profile on him for their Sunday, May 18 edition. In teasers for the upcoming profile, the paper wrote that they’d raked through “News databanks” which “revealed scores of stories on Williams, a superintendent for 11 years in two cities.” So they’d done their homework and were going to publish details of Williams’ checkered career a day before the Memphis search committee was to interview him. Williams quickly pulled out before his profile was printed, and before the committee had a chance to reject him. The Commercial Appeal announced Williams’ withdrawal on Friday morning, May 16, well before Buffalo media learned he’d dropped out. The story drew loads of reader comments like these on the Commercial Appeal’s Web site:

“I am glad he’s gone. Embattled is not an adjective I would prefer to have linked to our new Superintendent of schools.”

“We don’t need his kind of skill or expertise, we already have a number of incompetent people now in our school system.”

“His skills and expertise? You mean like putting his [Dayton] school system $23 Million in debt that nobody on their School Board knew about until he was finally audited and that’s why he had to leave and end up in Buffalo.”

The most surprising comment on the Commercial Appeal’s Web site came at the tail of the day’s long list of negative remarks on Williams. It was from Buffalo Public Schools publicist Stefan Mychajliw:

Hi. My name is Stefan Mychajliw, Spokesman for the Buffalo Public School District.

Please feel free to watch the press conference where Dr. James A. Williams announced his decision to remain in Buffalo. (link) You can also read our statement by following this link.”

Thus Mychajliw clumsily verified that Williams was aware he was sinking in Memphis and that his “staying for the children” speech was a scramble to look good, and loyal to Buffalo. “No, baby,” Williams was saying to Buffalo’s parents, teachers, and administrators. “I wasn’t looking at her ass. You know I love only you.”

Williams is a serial job-jump applicant, who has secretly applied or interviewed for jobs in Atlanta, Dallas, Hartford, Durham, and Memphis, startling his board each time, both in Dayton and Buffalo. “I was surprised and shocked he would even consider leaving at such a critical time,” a somewhat naïve-sounding Chris Jacobs told the Buffalo News. “I feel like I was kicked in the stomach.”

You were, Chris. Jacobs and board member Florence Johnson have been Williams’ strongest defenders. Jacobs even publicly lied for Williams, holding a news conference in May to insist Williams never suggested in executive session that McKinley High School volunteer basketball coach Michelle Stiles was a lesbian, only to have Williams later admit to special investigator David Edmunds that, in fact, he had.

Williams doesn’t like it when someone else does the leaving. When former South Park High School principal Paul Casseri left to work at Lewiston-Porter Schools, Williams angrily berated him at City Hall: “How can you walk out on children?” Williams said. “That’s disgusting.” Then he called Lewiston-Porter officials and complained to them.

In any case, the lesson from Memphis is that it’s unlikely Williams is going to be hired away by someone else, so unless the Buffalo school district buys him out or he commits a crime or one of the other actionable offenses that allows the board to legally fire him, Buffalo will have Williams until 2011. It cost Dayton $225,000 to show him the door in 1999. His contract here states that at a minimum he’d get six months pay for termination; that would be $110,000.

Rest assured, the expense would be much higher than that.

Our not-so-excellent search for excellence

Buffalo’s search for a candidate to replace retiring, and moderately successful, school superintendent Marion Canedo was so seriously flawed that it invited failure. The first mistake was to accept M&T Bank chairman Robert Wilmers’ offer to pay $100,000 to finance the search. Wilmers, who at the time sat on the Buffalo Fiscal Stability Authority, or control board, initially demanded that if the full, nine-member board was involved in the search then he wanted eight members from the business community on the search committee as well.

In response, someone might have pointed out to Wilmers that Buffalo Public Schools are filled with struggling minority children and that the city’s “business community” already does a miserable enough job of helping minorities. If it weren’t for publicly funded minority hiring at hospitals, schools, and city and county government, almost no minority workers would be employed in Buffalo. It’s been that way for decades. The Buffalo race riot in June 1967 was heavily attributed to a lack of jobs for blacks, and it was Mayor Frank Sedita who immediately created 400 public jobs for blacks in response to the riots, not the business community. If the business community is so concerned with the education and well-being of Buffalo’s public school students, they could begin by creating training programs for minority children and start giving people jobs.

Nevertheless, ignoring the historical failures of the city’s business community, Florence Johnson, school board president at the time, seemed eager to hold hands with Wilmers, and they finally settled on a search committee comprising four school board members and three M&T appointees.

That committee hired an executive search company, creating a second, and worse, problem. Heidrick & Struggles, one of the top executive search firms in the country, immediately began operating in secrecy, and by extension so did the seven-member search committee. Heidrick & Struggles, a firm with clients like corporate giants Disney, Nike, Chrysler, and Coca Cola, showed little regard for the school board or the Buffalo public. At-large board member Catherine Collins complained that they weren’t getting much for the $100,000 being paid: “We’re basically only having conference calls with them.” Face-to-face meetings with the search committee totaled exactly two—and one of those was spent with Heidrick & Struggles representative Nathaniel Sutton trying to convince the board to take more money from Wilmers and the business community to supplement the new superintendent’s salary. “There are advantages to corporate involvement,” Sutton said. “I’d never knock a gift horse in the mouth.”

Committee members blew off complaints by the rest of the board and the public about the lack of information. Finally, the full board revolted and overruled the search committee, demanding that a representative of Heidrick & Struggles come to Buffalo and attend a public meeting to give some transparency to the search for a new superintendent. Florence Johnson and search committee head Denise Hanlon argued hard against this, with Johnson insisting it implied a lack of trust in the search committee.

The board won out and a public forum was scheduled for January 24 at Bennett High School. Heidrick & Struggles didn’t bother to show. Two empty chairs represented the company.

At some point the search committee announced that Heidrick & Struggles had 15 candidates, including some local people, but no one we’ve reached seems to know who they were. “The confidentiality of the candidates is paramount,” Hanlon said. Not even search committee members knew the names. “We don’t need them,” said Hanlon.

In every other city searching for a school superintendent—Memphis, for example—a list of finalists is published, discussed, and examined. Not in Buffalo.

At the end, according board member Ralph Hernandez, “We saw two candidates, and we saw them for 10 minutes each.” Then on Thursday, April 7, 2005, after a closed-door meeting, Florence Johnson unexpectedly announced James A. Williams was the likely choice, telling the Buffalo News she had decided to scrap the school board’s traditional policy of not making any announcement until after references were checked and the choice was final. Her excuse was that she “received information his name might already be out.” The media quickly swarmed to write and talk about Williams. Protests about the rushed, unvetted, and untransparent choice of Williams were simply drowned out. The Buffalo News reported that, “Johnson stressed that Williams was superintendent in Dayton for eight years but did not mention how his tenure ended.”

How had it ended? He was fired for misleading the Dayton school board and hiding $23 million in overspending, something Hernandez discovered via a simple Google search, which caused him to be the lone vote against hiring Williams. One non-school board search committee member recently told us that in retrospect the committee had not done enough research on Williams and accepted too much information at face value without challenging anything. Nevertheless, the school board representatives on the search committee— Johnson, Jacobs, Hanlon, and Jack Coyle—were ecstatic over their new guy. “We are very excited,” said Johnson.

Is this about politics or education?

To understand Buffalo’s relationship with James Williams, it’s important to examine the city itself.

Rumors abound that Bob Wilmers personally picked Williams because he knew Williams would not stand in the way of charter schools and that he had a reputation for fighting teachers unions. That Williams is pro-charter school and anti-union is certainly true. In Dayton, the teachers registered a vote of no confidence in Williams and staged a 16-day strike that threw the entire system into chaos. Williams also fought to introduce charter schools to Dayton, though he later complained they were draining money and students from the district schools.

But it is doubtful that Bob Wilmers personally selected Williams. Members of the search committee we spoke to said Wilmers never directly interfered, and even Buffalo Teachers Federation president Phil Rumore doesn’t believe Wilmers would have gotten involved at the committee level, although no one could say whether or not he gave Heidrick & Struggles any directives. However, Wilmers didn’t need to do much of anything. He was paying for the search and he had appointees on the search committee who surely knew his thinking: anti-union, pro-charter school.

M&T has had great success sponsoring Westminster Community charter school. And Wilmers’ position on unions has been clear for years. Three years ago the BTF pulled all its money out of M&T accounts and wrote to all its members suggesting they do the same, to send a “strong message” they disapprove of actions taken by Wilmers. Last May, speaking to the Rotary Club of Buffalo, Wilmers compared upstate New York to former communist Europe and put much of the blame on public unions, singling out the BTF in particular.

But one has to look beyond the superintendent search, to the Buffalo control board and former Governor George Pataki, for a more complete picture of what’s afoot. After a 1966 transit strike in New York City, the state, under Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller, passed the Public Employees Fair Employment Act, or Taylor Law, which prohibited public unions from striking, punishable by jail and fines. In exchange it guaranteed bargaining and other rights to workers. This covered police, fire, teachers, transit, etc. The law was bitterly opposed by several unions, particularly the United Teachers Federation, and the unions still question losing their right to strike. Many, particularly in the business community, now blame the Taylor Law and its contract guarantees for causing the downward spiral of New York’s cities.

But no politician has been willing to try to change the Taylor Law directly through legislation. So if, like Wilmers, you believe public unions are among New York State’s major problems, and you can’t change the Taylor Law, then your other option is to work on breaking the unions.

Pataki proposed and passed the Charter Schools Act of 1998 as a way around the Taylor Law. Charter schools would be free of state and local mandates, apart from health and safety rules; would operate independent of the school district; could hire non-union and uncertified teachers; could be open longer; and would be tuition-free because per-pupil public school district money would follow the students. This was manna from heaven for those who believed unions were killing the state; for school districts it was poison. If 15 children leave a public school class of 25, three-quarters of the state money allocated for those 15 kids follows them to their charter school. But now, left with a class of 10 students and proportionately less state funding, the district must pay nearly the same amount that it would have cost to teach 25 students—for the teacher, the building, the maintenance, administrators, transportation, rising costs etc.

For Buffalo, in 2003, an additonal strategy in the war against public unions was the control board, in whose creation Wilmers was involved and to which Pataki appointed Wilmers. Pataki also appointed former New York City budget director Alair Townsend, who had already publicly embraced charter schools and condemned teachers unions and anyone who stood in “the way of reforming teacher tenure protections.” Also on the board was then county executive Joel Giambra, a longtime opponent of the Taylor Law from when he was Buffalo comptroller, and who once proposed the state simply take over the Buffalo school district.

Meanwhile, Pataki was continuing to slash state funding to Buffalo schools. In May 2003, after the control board was in place, Pataki vetoed $24 million for Buffalo schools that the legislature had tried to put in the budget. Superintendent Marion Canedo and the school board were struggling to put a financial plan together, but with a huge budget gap, charter schools now draining millions of dollars from the district, hundreds of layoffs, and dropping enrollment, there was little work with. Under the leadership of Jack Coyle, the school board blindly, and some would say stupidly, voted to create more charter schools. Someone should have realized that if Pataki and his political engineers were earnest about promoting charter schools solely for educational reasons, the state would have created an independent funding stream for them instead of bleeding unionized public school districts. Basically, they were trying to stack the deck for charters, and public schools were being set up to fail through deprivation of the tools and funds they needed to compete.

To suck money from the Buffalo district schools and the children they educate seems particularly irrational considering the state had just committed to spend $1 billion on Buffalo’s public school buildings, through the joint schools construction project.

Nevertheless, the overall strategy appeared to be to starve the school districts with funding cuts, force layoffs, and drain as much money as possible from what’s left through charter schools. A continuous application of that assault would bring the teachers union to its knees. But there’s more.

In September 2003, Canedo presented to the control board the district’s plan for closing the school district’s budget gap, which included massive staff cuts, eliminating sports programs, and counting on more state aid. Thomas Baker, control board chair, rejected the plan and gave Canedo 15 days to come up with a four-year fiscal blueprint.

More was needed besides just laying off teachers off, according to Baker. “Maybe it has to do with wage freezes,” he said. By January 2004, the control board instituted the wage freeze, just before the BTF contract came up for renewal. Shortly afterward, Canedo, after four years as superintendent, threw in the towel and announced she was retiring, two years before her contract expired. Yvonne Hargrave, the district’s chief academic officer, took over as interim-superintendent until James A. Williams arrived for the start of the 2005 school year.

During this entire period, Wilmers’ longtime ally at the Buffalo News, publisher Stan Lipsey, spared no ink in trying to manipulate the public psyche toward charters and against unions. A reading of the past three years of Buffalo News editorials reveal a jaw-dropping and relentless attack on the teachers union, and, once he arrived, a fawning over Williams that often reads like a hysterical wife defending her drunk, abusive husband. It took two and a half years for the first editorial critical of Williams to appear, and that was only because of the public outrage that Williams returned six students to Performing Arts after they beat up a teacher and a student, while telling the victim he was no longer allowed in school. Williams has now instructed schools they are no longer allowed to report incidents of violence.

A pawn in the game

Williams, son of a minister, has, with his beguiling Southern-tinged accent, the gift of public speaking often associated with ministers. When questions are posed to him about education or policy, he frequently spins off some warm, cracker-barrel wisdom about the redemption of some young child, or poor father, or young gang member. Folks are impressed at how clearly he identifies the problems of educating in a distressed urban environment. And though Williams usually just states the obvious—like children need to behave, eat breakfast, learn to read, come to school, and have the support of their parents—the public and board members like Chris Jacobs and Florence Johnson nod their heads in eager agreement as if experiencing an epiphany. It’s that gift that gained Williams early support. “I call him ‘the next great communicator,’” said former Ferry District board member Betty Jean Grant, who did not favor Williams until smitten by his speaking.

And so without much scrutiny or a challenging interview, Williams charmed his way into a generous contract with Buffalo. The offer by Wilmers to supplement the new superintendent’s income was declined by the board, but by Buffalo standards the contract was still lavish: a starting salary of $205,000 plus $15,000 yearly annuity payment (recently bumped up to $220,000, but the annuity was dropped); 26 vacation days in addition to school holidays; 40 days of sick leave to start and an additional 14 each year; five days of personal leave; 20 days of leave for the illness of household family members; termination pay of six months’ salary or the salary remaining for the term of his contract, whichever is less; the right to accept consulting work, speaking engagements, or other professional opportunities. Williams can accumulate up to 150 days of sick time but may not cash them in; he was also paid $24,540 for relocation and orientation. By contrast, Marion Canedo began as superintendent at $136,000 with 24 sick days and after four years was paid $171,000. No doubt thousands of employees working under no contract and a wage freeze were scratching their heads.

Once Williams began the job, his charm disappeared for many who had to work with him. He quickly gained a reputation for being arrogant, dismissive of his teachers and employees, vindictive, a bully, and egotistical. He likes to dine frequently in the most expensive restaurants in town, although servers tell us he never pays for himself. He is fond of repeatedly saying, “I am the CEO of a $1.7 billion corporation.” It’s a mantra of self-importance he uses to inflate himself. That dollar figure comes from adding the $1 billion joint schools construction project and the district’s $700 million annual budget (now $800 million). Williams has also created a murky “foundation” that is controlled only by him and CFO Gary Crosby, and which has hundreds of thousands of dollars in it, but no one knows exactly how much (because they refuse to tell even board members) or where the money is going, other than a few publicized purchases of school uniforms.

The catalogue of Williams’ failures is extensive, whether personal failures like charges of name-calling, racially and sexually offensive remarks, and the use of profanity; screaming at board members; threatening to take BTF president Phil Rumore in the alley and kick his ass; mishandling the McKinley-James Daye incident; his failure to address the sex abuse charge at Discovery School 67; and so on. His programming failures are equally abhorrent. The Academy School 44 for students with behavioral issues is a complete disaster, and expensive—in addition to normal operating costs of teachers and building renovation, an additional $10 million has been wasted paying a technology company with no ability to address the needs of an alternative school. Add Commencement Academies and summer school to the list of failures. Truancy and violence remain unabated.

And many of the things that Williams likes to brag about, like the $1 billion school renovations, the consistently spectacular performance of City Honors, a few successful academic programs—these all were in place before Williams arrived.

The truth is that none of this stuff is really that important. Williams could probably be a good superintendent if conditions didn’t practically force him to ineptitude. He arrived in a school district that had a wage freeze and a control board in place; an ill-considered strategy already in motion to illegally abrogate a union contract; a long list of court cases and grievances; a district with five or six years of steady annual cuts of hundreds of teachers, teachers aides and other school staff; a dysfunctional school board; and a political agenda fomented by the power brokers in Buffalo to try to break the public unions.

Williams walked into an ongoing war, and he’s in combat with the unions because that’s what he was hired to do, and that has comsumed most of his time and energy. But the strategy is wrong, as the courts have proved over and over again. The Taylor law was initially designed to control the unions and keep them from striking—indeed it made striking a crime. But the provisions for contract negotiations were part of that same law, and the fact is that over the years the unions have been better negotiators than the cities and school districts negotiating with them. As a result, the people who like to control things—people like Bob Wilmers—are upset.

Wilmers and others like him may be right: Charter schools, independently funded, would create good competition, and union contracts may be too generous. (Do they really need a cosmetic rider so a balding middle-aged police captais can get a hair transplant?) But these public union contracts are law. Unlike private sector jobs, you can’t outsource to China or India the jobs of saving a burning house, arresting a pursesnatcher, or teaching your kid at the school down the street. Until they either find a better method of negotiating or something changes in Albany, cities and school districts waste time and money in losing court battles; they’re demoralizing teachers, police, firefighters, and every other public employee by demonizing them and getting daily newspapers to continuously accuse them of killing our economy.

Before we can talk about the best strategy to improve our schools and boost the academic performance of our children—and believe me, there are proven methods out there that we are not using—we need to stop hiring mercenaries like James A. Williams to fight senseless, costly battles against our own. Superintendents come and go. Williams may wake up each day telling himself he’s the CEO of a billion dollar corporation, but he’s just a pawn in the game.

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