Tonja Williams has some things going for her as she seeks the permanent appointment as superintendent of Buffalo public schools.
They start with her people skills. Williams, who has been interim superintendent since Kriner Cash resigned in March, is a good listener and a realist in telling people what she can deliver. She’s familiar with the city and district, having lived in the Buffalo area her whole life and worked in city schools for 32 years.
“She seems to listen to all sides of an issue and doesn’t seem to get drawn into any personal conflict, any ulterior agendas that may be going on with certain situations,” said Larry Scott, an at-large member of the school board. “I think that’s probably what stood out most for me as a board member, especially at a time where things were pretty unstable, uncertain.”
Others question if she’s demonstrated the skills necessary to lead a district in need of change. Fewer than one-third of students can read or do math a grade level. Attendance is poor. Violence has become commonplace.
For starters, Williams has no experience as a classroom teacher at the primary or secondary school level. Her career in the city’s public schools has mostly involved counseling and administration jobs.
She served as principal in two schools, including four years at Futures Academy, where student achievement, already low, declined during her tenure. She was replaced there and at School 61 — where she served for just one semester — as part of federal and state turnaround programs.
That has the jury divided.
“I can’t say she was a great leader at that school or not a great leader. All I can say is no one should put much stock in the fact that she was moved under that legislation,” said Marc Bruno, a teacher at Riverside High School.
While her long tenure in the district makes her well known in the city’s education circles, her background is largely unknown to the larger community and has not been scrutinized by local news outlets.
To gain a full picture of Williams, Investigative Post interviewed 18 educators and parents who have dealt with her over the years. We also reviewed attendance, suspension and test score data from the schools where she worked as principal.
Williams, through a district spokesperson, refused an interview request from Investigative Post.
The Board of Education is undecided on how to go about filling the role. Some want a national search. Others, like Board President Louis Petrucci, prefer locally sourced candidates.
“We want results very quickly,” Petrucci said. “Local candidates have continuity. Continuity and consistency are one thing that you’re looking for that provides for educational achievement.”
There’s a move afoot in some quarters to give Williams the job permanently as Kriner Cash’s successor, with or without an extensive search for candidates. Buffalo Common Council Members Ulysees Wingo and Rasheed Wyatt backed her within a month of her appointment. The Council also approved a resolution in April urging the school board to prioritize local candidates like Williams.
“I think it’s outright irresponsible for people to be suggesting that an interim superintendent who’s been in the position less than a month, who hasn’t produced a plan, should be given the permanent job,” said Sam Radford, co-chair of We the Parents in Buffalo.
Williams is a graduate of Riverside High School in Buffalo. She earned her bachelor of science degree from Medaille College in 1986 and a master of educational counseling from Canisius College 1990.
Williams spent nine of her 32 years with Buffalo schools as a guidance counselor, including at City Honors. She moved on to become an acting supervisor in pupil personnel services, a role in which she oversaw long-term suspension hearings districtwide.
This was followed by a stint as supervisor of safe and drug-free schools in 2001, where she headed the district’s efforts to decrease substance abuse by connecting students with programs for counseling and treatment. In November 2002 Williams was appointed director of guidance and counseling.
Effective communication and mediation are some of Williams’ strongest skills, according to parents and teachers who spoke with Investigative Post.
“She’s personable, she’s polite,” Bruno said. “She has made an effort, and whether that effort continues is going to be a big question.”
Bruno, like other teachers Investigative Post spoke with, said Williams’ lack of teaching experience is cause for hesitation.
“I think a lot of teachers want classroom experience from anyone leading them,” Bruno said. “I’m not trying to downplay the importance of guidance counselors, they’re hugely important. But I think that’s a concern.”
Principal at Futures Academy
Williams earned a doctorate in education in 2011 from St. John Fisher College in Rochester. Shortly thereafter she was appointed principal at Marva J. Daniel Futures Preparatory School. It was a chronically underachieving school. That didn’t change under Williams’ four-year tenure there.
Student performance on standardized tests gauging reading, writing and math skills declined. In her first year, fewer than 20 percent of students tested at proficient levels on all but two of 14 state standardized tests.
By her final year as head of the school in 2015, just 10 percent of students tested at proficient levels on all but one of those same tests.
Williams did have success in decreasing suspensions. The suspension rate dropped from 36 percent of students in the 2011-12 school year to 10 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Student attendance was more or less unchanged, hovering around 90 percent.
The school transitioned to single-gender classrooms during her tenure. Boys attended class on the first floor, girls on the second. The school dropped the experiment shortly after Williams left.
Williams remained at Futures until the summer of 2015, when the school entered receivership due to persistently poor student achievement. Under receivership, the school was placed under the sole management of Cash, the district’s superintendent at the time. The district implemented a “turnaround” model in order to receive additional funding through a school improvement grant. The model required the removal of the principal.
Williams was transferred to principal of School 61, the Arthur O. Eve School of Distinction, an elementary school on Leroy Avenue. Her time there was brief. The school was selected for a school improvement grant for “transformation” just six months after she started. The transformation model, like the turnaround model, required the replacement of the principal.
Opinions are mixed on what this says of Williams’ abilities.
“I would say that if that’s on her resume, I would put an asterisk saying, ‘This whole time period was a complete scapegoating joke by the federal and state government,’ ” Bruno said.
Others consider it a blemish on her resume.
“If somebody came in and said, ‘I want to be the head coach to the Bills, you ask, ‘What are your qualifications?’ ” said Larry Quinn, who served on the school board during Williams’ time at Futures and School 61. “If they coached two teams and were removed twice because of losing seasons, do you think there’s any chance in the world they’d be hired?”
Dealing with parents
Parents told Investigative Post Williams has a way with handling even the toughest problems they’ve presented her.
Duncan Kirkwood’s daughter attended School 61 when Williams was principal in 2016. His daughter required special needs services that the school wasn’t providing, Kirkwood said. He was frustrated when he met with Williams.
“Generally, that type of conversation is very hostile,” Kirkwood said. “When it’s your child, you get more emotional, you get more demonstrative, and you’re angry. And you try to be professional, but at the same time you’re frustrated, because you feel that your child is not getting what they need.”
His feelings changed after meeting with Williams, he said.
“She took the time to listen and receive it and hear it and acknowledge how I’m feeling,” he said.
Kirkwood’s issues were ultimately unresolved. He sued the district and enrolled his daughter in a charter school as a result. But he still appreciates his interactions with Williams, he said.
“She did what I want any administrator to do. Do the best they can, hear what the parent is saying,” he said. “You don’t expect them to have all the answers and be able to solve every problem, but you want them to hear you and take the time to do the best they can to come up with a solution.”
After departing as principal of School 61, Williams moved to central administration. She was an assistant superintendent from 2016 through September 2019, then associate superintendent of student support services and a member of Cash’s executive cabinet.
Those who worked with her at this level said her performance was ordinary.
“I just didn’t think that she was very effective in timely administration of different things,” a former colleague said. “It just didn’t seem like anything was ever getting done.”
Indecision regarding job search
Cash has been gone for more than two months and the school board has yet to decide a process for selecting his permanent successor. Some favor a national search. Others want to keep it local.
“What I hear from a majority of people is that they really want someone that they have connections with, whether it’s high school or college or work or similar fields,” Petrucci said. “They really want that kind of Western New York connection.”
Radford cautioned against simply hiring Williams because it would be convenient.
“I haven’t heard a plan [from her] yet,” he said. “I’ve heard her listen, I haven’t heard any plan. So she comes up with a plan, and it’s a good plan, and she gets some community support around it actually and can make a difference for our children, she may be somebody we should consider. But we’re a long, long way from that.”
The process of selecting a superintendent often takes over a year, current and past board members told Investigative Post. Upcoming school board elections in November complicate matters. Six of nine seats are up for election. Petrucci and Hope Jay, who represents the North District, are not running for reelection.
Petrucci told Investigative Post he thinks the current, more experienced board should take the reins leading the search.
“It does take time to learn the ins and outs of the district. You know, educational law and financing and the budgets and all those things that really come into play,” he said.
For that reason, Petrucci said he’s not sure the new board could handle the task.
“I’m sure that they will hit the ground running, but the educational component sometimes takes a little bit of getting used to,” he said.