Former Dayton school superintendent James Williams dies

James Williams (right), superintendent of the Dayton Public Schools, speaks about an audit of the district by the office of state auditor Jim Petro in 1999. Dayton Daily News File Photo
Caption
James Williams (right), superintendent of the Dayton Public Schools, speaks about an audit of the district by the office of state auditor Jim Petro in 1999. Dayton Daily News File Photo

James A. Williams, who served as superintendent of Dayton Public Schools from 1991-1999, died Tuesday at age 77.

Williams came to Dayton Public Schools as assistant superintendent in 1986 when current Dayton mayor-elect Jeff Mims was president of Dayton’s teachers union and Franklin Smith was superintendent.

Mims said they took a more unified, collaborative approach than labor and management had in the past. He said that led to community support, as voters passed a large school levy in 1988.

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“(Williams) understood business and he was also effective in education,” Mims said. “He really loved and cared for kids, especially poor kids. He fought hard for them.”

Mims, who later served as a DPS administrator and school board member, said that Williams’ brash, outspoken nature made him some enemies when he pushed hard for the business community’s support of DPS and when he worked with legislators at the Statehouse. And the support with labor was not constant, as teachers went on strike in 1993.

In a 1999 Dayton Daily News article, then-state Sen. Rhine McLin said of Williams: “You either love him or you hate him.”

“He put a lot of heart into this community,” Mims said, adding that Williams could be both “a big teddy bear” as well as “a bull in a china shop.”

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Colleen Wells, who was executive administrative assistant to DPS superintendents, including Williams, spoke highly of him.

“Dr. Williams was a visionary and ahead of the times, especially when it came to charter schools,” Wells said. “He ruffled feathers with adults because he always put the students first. Under that stern exterior was one of the most caring people I know.”

Williams started his career as a teacher, guidance counselor and principal in Washington D.C. schools.

During his 13 years in Dayton, he championed magnet schools, full-day kindergarten, a mobile health clinic, and free breakfast and lunch for all elementary students.

Some residents cheered Williams, as DPS’ state test scores rose dramatically during his tenure. Others pointed out that even after rising, those scores were among the worst in the state, and that the schools struggled to solve discipline and violence problems.

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A 1999 state audit said DPS had misstated financial projections and was in “treacherous” financial condition. Williams said the data came from the treasurer’s office, adding, “I’m not taking this beating.” But less than two months later, the school board voted to buy out his contract.

Williams later worked with schools in Montgomery County, Maryland; Nashville; and was superintendent in Buffalo, New York. He also helped found a college decision-making firm serving families.

Mims said Williams had been in declining health for the past year. He said a memorial service for Williams is being planned for the Washington D.C. area the weekend after Thanksgiving.

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