BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) — “I want to be upfront. I want to be transparent with everyone,” declared Dr. Tonja Williams, superintendent, Buffalo Public School District.
Dr. Tonja Williams now marking two weeks in her permanent new role as the city school leader. But Dr. Williams is no stranger to the district where she has worked in other roles for the past 32 years.
The superintendent already had a chance to roll up her sleeves serving over the last four months as interim superintendent. She took over in March when the controversial former Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash resigned.
“Would you say he left behind damage for the district that you have to know work toward revising and fixing up?” Buckley asked. “So I don't look at it as damage. I think different leaders have different styles,” replied Dr. Williams. “I think Dr. Cash did some very good work. I think as a leader, I’m a very different kind of leader. I’m from Buffalo and spent my whole career with the Buffalo Public Schools dedicated myself to the children and the families."
And if you want some proof of the superintendent's efforts, she started with summer school by putting out a series of Robocalls so parents and school families would know what to expect when it came to safety, security, and in-school violence.
“The first week of summer school we didn't have any incidents of fighting or anything — that's unheard of and I do believe it is attributed to me letting everybody know what we expected,” explained Dr. Williams.
“What specifically did you say in that message that you changed that safety issue? What do you think made the difference of students not fighting within?" Buckley questioned.
“That the children show up. That the children are on time. The children are listening to their teachers who are there to teach,” answered Dr. Williams. “All of our children in grades 7 through 12 experienced wanding. They all had to go through a security check — that's new. Our 7th and 8th graders had not had to do that.”
McKinley High School parents were highly critical of district leadership after a student was stabbed and a security guard was shot outside the school earlier this year claiming a lack of communication.
“But certainly we want to make sure that the parents know if the school is on a lockout or lockdown that children are inside and that the children are safe,” Dr. Williams noted. “In any role that I play in the Buffalo schools, it was always my mission that we would do everything we could so that we never, ever, ever experience anything like that again.”
The superintendent tells me the district has increased the number of school security officers and ordered state-of-the-art walkie-talkies.
“Making sure that our schools are safe. That's a big, big, big priority for me,” responded Dr. Williams. “Safety and security piece is huge — that second piece is the educational excellence — it’s got to be every day in all of our schools."
The superintendent outlined the following topics that will be addressed district:
- Prioritizing safety & wellness
- Create community trust
- Transportation issues, need to hire bus drivers
- Eliminate opportunity gaps for children
- Accelerate education for students
- Creation of Academic Achievement plan
- Connect community to city classrooms
I also asked the superintendent about reaching a new contract for city teachers who are seeking a pay hike. Dr. Williams says she is in negotiations with the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
“I respect, I respect, I respect our teachers and I want them to have fair wages — there's no question about that,” explained Dr. Williams.
“How will you continue to reach out to those children who were deeply affected by the Tops shooting on Jefferson Avenue?” Buckley asked.
“That will be something I think for many years to come because again, just like McKinley — that was a dark day for the district — the Tops shooting was just a dark day for our country — our entire country,” remarked Dr. Williams. “We’re going to need enhanced mental health supports n our schools. We are hiring additional student support staff. We are looking at training and support for our teachers and our teacher aides and our clerks because we were all affected in one-way shape or form.”
Dr. Williams conducted extensive listening tours across the district while serving as interim leader. She will be hosting a State of the Schools address on August 22 at 10:30 a.m.
Williams tells 7 News she is not afraid of challenges.
“I’m not afraid — you don't grow up in Buffalo, New York and be afraid of challenges — so I’m Buffalo Strong,” reflected Dr. Williams.