The man chosen to fill one of the top spots in Montgomery County public schools comes with such awards as Urban Educator of the Year, but also the cloud of a fiscal crisis that led to his ouster as superintendent of schools in Dayton, Ohio.
James A. Williams, approved by the Board of Education last week to become one of three top deputy superintendents to Jerry D. Weast, was superintendent in Dayton for eight years until a state audit last spring revealed that the system was as much as $21 million in the red.
Last summer, the Dayton board bought out the remaining year on Williams's contract, paying him $225,000 to cover his $114,000 salary, vacation and sick days and personal expense account.
Weast and other board members in Montgomery County said that Williams, 55, who starts Feb. 1 as deputy superintendent for organizational development, was upfront about the financial problems. Still, when a selection panel chose Williams several months ago, Weast said the fiscal problems gave him pause. So he began another nationwide search. Again, a panel of community, staff and board members chose Williams.
"I wasn't ready to take it on the first time," Weast said. "But we're not hiring him to be superintendent. We're hiring him to be a deputy. And we're definitely not hiring him to do financial issues in the district."
Board member Reginald M. Felton (Northeastern County), who served on the selection panel, said the fiscal crisis was not discussed. "He was bought out of his contract," Felton said. "If there had been any wrongdoing, he would not have been compensated."
News of the deficit rocked members of the Dayton school board and the community, who until that time thought their district was the only one in Ohio with a balanced budget.
"People may not have liked James Williams, but the books were always in order," said board member Clayton Luckie. "When people found out they weren't, they really threw that back at him."
But the real issue became one of responsibility--an area that Weast is making paramount in his reorganization and his accountability plan to evaluate schools, principals and teachers. This is the area that Williams will oversee.
When Williams insisted that the problems were not his, the Dayton community became enraged.
"People were up in arms. They wanted to hold someone accountable, and the most logical person was the person in charge of the district," said Joyce Fulwiler Shawhan, head of the local teachers union.
Williams blames the district's chief financial officer for creative accounting, and Ohio law that requires the CFO to report to the board, not the superintendent.
"The CFO wasn't paying our bills. The numbers were not correct," Williams said in an interview from his Ohio home.
But some Dayton board members saw it differently. "You're the superintendent. It's still your responsibility to make sure everything is in order and that the budget is not overrun," Luckie said.
Despite the crisis, Luckie said Williams brought in innovative programs to help disadvantaged children and created academies for principal and teacher training.
Weast, who as one of his first acts as superintendent fired the head of technology for refusing to take responsibility for a failed computer system, promises that Williams will be held accountable.
"He obviously has assumed some responsibility in the fact that he wants to be a deputy now, not a superintendent," Weast said. "If he comes here and something occurs, we will deal with that."
CAPTION: James A. Williams blames the Dayton schools' chief financial officer for the $21 million deficit.