Clock ticking to select Amherst-Pelham’s new school leader

  • The Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 school committees met Wednesday night to discuss who might replace Superintendent Michael Morris, who resigned last week effective Aug. 31. The committees also released meeting minutes from last week in which they discussed his resignation and separation agreement with the district. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 8/24/2023 3:24:50 PM
Modified: 8/24/2023 3:24:21 PM

AMHERST — With less than a week before they must hire an interim or temporary superintendent to lead the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham schools, regional school committee members said at a Wednesday meeting that they aren’t sure who will be appointed or how long that person might be in the role.

Meanwhile, details also emerged Wednesday about the behind-the-scenes discussions members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 school committees had regarding the resignation and separation agreement with Superintendent Michael Morris, who announced last week that he is leaving his position effective Aug. 31.

At Wednesday’s joint meeting of the committees, much of the discussion on finding a successor to Morris focused on whether Finance Director Douglas Slaughter could return to the role he held for two months, from mid-May to mid-July, while Morris was on medical leave.

“We need to act quickly in terms of this superintendent, whether we vote interim or acting,” Amherst representative Irv Rhodes said.

“The first order of business is to figure out someone who can get in there on Sept. 1,” said Amherst representative Peter Demling.

Over the next week, Sarahbess Kenney and Jennifer Shiao, the chairwoman and vice chairwoman of the regional committee, and Rhodes and Margaret Stancer, the chairman and vice chairwoman of the Union 26 committee, will reach out to Slaughter about his interest in the job and also to get a list of people in the district who have the administrative license needed to be superintendent.

“The four of us will get together and game plan,” Kenney said.

“We’re going to need an interim, it’s more than a short-term thing, it’s a medium-term thing, possibly for a year, possibly for six months, ” Shiao said.

Shiao said a national search should take place so a permanent successor could be in place for July 1, 2024.

Stancer said Slaughter might serve for a short time, but there needs to be consistency for the schools. “I feel like somebody who would be willing to come in for the year would be the best,” Stancer said.

Leverett representative Tilman Wolf agreed. “I’m not in favor of having somebody for half a year and then potentially having another change,” Wolf said, adding that that is a lot of distraction in a short amount of time.

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said the panels should select an interim who can get the committees to the next hiring cycle.

Behind the scenesof Morris’ decision

The discussion came after the school committees spent nearly two hours in executive session reviewing minutes from an Aug. 17 closed-door session that led to the separation agreement with Morris.

Those minutes, posted on the district’s website, revealed that the decision by Morris to resign was prompted by the uproar in the community over the Title IX investigation into gender-based bullying at the middle school and complaints that administrators didn’t intervene to stop harms perpetrated against LGBTQ students.

The minutes state, “Demling summarized the reasons that Morris shared for why he felt a mutual separation agreement was in everyone’s best interest. Morris feels that the current situation has become untenable for himself and the district, the current tone and tenor is not sustainable or healthy for anyone, and he feels even if thorough investigation reports clear him of wrongdoing (which he is confident they will), the results will not be accepted by all.”

Morris described that going into the school year with the current level of uncertainty is a distraction that will keep attention off kids, and that he brought his idea of leaving to Demling and Ben Herrington, who chaired the regional committee until his recent resignation, on Aug 14.

Amherst representative Allison McDonald supported Morris in his request to leave: “McDonald shared that she didn’t see how his superintendency is sustainable given the division in the community and committee. The longer we spend on this issue the less opportunities we would have to heal and address our students’ needs moving forward.”

But Rhodes was resistant, with minutes showing that he “strongly disagrees with this agreement based on the fact that the committee does not have any written results from the full Title IX report in hand that would be actionable. He asked, how is it possible for the committee to commit to a payment to Morris without the full written report in hand.”

Rhodes suggested that Morris and the committee wait until the full written Title IX report is received and reviewed before making a decision.

The minutes also shows extensive discussion about the terms of the separation, beginning with a year’s salary before settling on providing 10 months.

In the end, the separation agreement was approved by a 6-3 vote of the Regional School Committee, with Demling, Herrington, McDonald, Heard, Wolf and Kenney in support, and Rhodes and Shiao and Pelham representative Tom Fanning against.

The Union 26 vote had Demling, McDonald, Stancer and Pelham representative Sarah Hall in support and Fanning and Rhodes against.

Public weighs in

Wednesday’s meeting saw significant public comment from those who have been calling for an investigation into Morris.

Maxine Oland thanked the community for support, as the parent who filed the Title IX complaint, and said those upset about Morris resigning should be aware that he failed to take action with policy changes that would make children safer and schools more inclusive.

“The reality is our district systematically violated Title IX and repeatedly failed our transgender and nonbinary kids,” Oland said. “The law says that if the district knows about gender or sex discrimination, they are required to investigate and remedy the situation, even if a parent doesn’t want to make a formal Title IX complaint.”

Megan St. Marie, a parent of seven current and past students, said the school committee should have had face-to-face meetings during this crisis.

“That refusal has contributed to acrimony, sadness and mistrust in our community,” St. Marie said. “I think adopting a stance of curiosity and vulnerability in times of strife and conflict can be a bridge to healing, and such states are enabled by in-person interactions and undermined by remote communications.”

Among written public comments was one signed by the Amherst Pelham Education Association, joined by the LGBTQIA+ Caucus, the Latinx Caucus, the Black Caucus, the Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Caucus and the Indigenous Caucus

“Moving forward and united, we urge the School Committees to protect students, to make decisions with integrity and transparency, and to hold leadership accountable.”

The letter makes several demands, including that an acting superintendent be appointed for the first few months of school, with an immediate nationwide search for a qualified, experienced, superintendent to commence, transparency in the timeline and all steps of the hiring process and a diverse interview committee.

Finally, the letters “asks that no further staffing decisions be made by Morris prior to his final day on the job on Aug. 31, a review of the last few months hiring decisions, including the overstaffing of administrators and central office staff while cutting classroom teacher positions (resulting in increased class size in many classrooms, and the release of the Title IX investigation summary to the public.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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