Morris out as Amherst superintendent amid anti-trans controversy

  • MICHAEL MORRIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/18/2023 1:47:22 PM

AMHERST — Superintendent Michael Morris will leave his position after seven years in the role, a mutual departure announced by the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 school committees Friday afternoon.

The announcement comes after the committees met behind closed doors late Thursday afternoon “to conduct strategy sessions in preparation for negotiations with nonunion personnel, Michael Morris, with no intention of returning to open session.”

“This change in leadership is not due to any wrongdoing on Mike’s part,” reads a joint statement attributed to Morris and Amherst representatives Peter Demling, who chairs the Union 26 committee made up of three Amherst and three Pelham representatives; and Ben Herrington, who chairs the regional committee made up of five Amherst representatives, two Pelham representatives and one representative from both Shutesbury and Leverett.

Reached by phone late Friday afternoon, Morris said he is committed to supporting the leadership team and district through the end of the month, when students and staff are back in the buildings for the fall semester.

Morris added that he will miss the district that has been part of his work life for more than two decades.

“I really appreciate all the support during 23 years in the district,” Morris said.

Morris returned to his position last month after a two-month medical leave, despite criticism from some in the community over his handling of reported mistreatment of LGBTQ students at the middle school and allegations that gender-based bullying was not being stopped, leading to a Title IX complaint over a lack of intervention.

Some rallied last month outside Morris’ office at the Amherst Regional Middle School, calling on the school committees to hold a special meeting to address whether Morris should remain as superintendent.

Additional investigations are underway into the actions of middle school counselors and the responsibility of Morris and Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham in hiring them.

The Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union representing teachers, paraeducators and clerical staff, took a vote of no confidence in Morris a day after he stepped aside and also called for Cunningham, the assistant superintendent for Diversity, Equity and Human Resources, to resign her position. Cunningham is on paid administrative leave.

When he returned, Morris announced a series of steps aimed at making the schools more welcoming and a comfortable learning environment for all students this fall, including creating a new mental health and behavioral administrator position. That is to supplement the state’s Safe Schools Program for LGBTQ Students, a program developed with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that will partner with the Stonewall Center.

Moris said he was part of a leadership retreat this week and is confident, from that, that the schools are continuing to head in the right direction.

A separation agreement that goes into effect Aug. 31, reached with the committees, will pay Morris his annual $178,500 salary for 10 months after the separation, or $6,868.69 every two weeks. It allows him to collect pay for 54 days of unused vacation time and doesn’t require him to attend any more public meetings before the end of his tenure.

His time in the Amherst public schools system has included being a teacher at Fort River School, building leader at Crocker Farm School, and then director of evaluation and assessment, before becoming assistant superintendent in 2014.

The joint statement notes successes in the three school districts Morris oversees, the Amherst, Pelham and Regional, such as the creation of the Caminantes Dual Language Program at Fort River School in Amherst. It cites the current school building project that will replace Fort River, the stabilization of a dire budget situation and increased student enrollment in Pelham, the change in start times to align with research for regional school students, and increased diversity of staff across all districts.

“The committees wish him well in the future,” the statement reads. “Mike appreciates the support he has received from the committees and the many staff and community members who have reached out to him over the past several months. He will remain available to assist the district in any way requested by his successor.”

Morris will continue to run the day-to-day operation of the districts through the end of the month to provide the School Committees sufficient time to select a successor and to ensure a smooth transition.

During his medical leave, Douglas Slaughter, the finance director for the schools, served as temporary superintendent.

Reaction

Demling called the departure of Morris “a profoundly sad day and a tremendous loss for our public schools” that was caused by a rush to judge and condemn without a complete set of facts, and that such action will have a negative impact long term on the future of the public schools.

“Mike was a trusted leader with decades of service to ARPS and a long track record of promoting LGBTQ rights and putting student well-being at the heart of all his actions,” Demling said. “He received consistently high praise from the community over many years, and showed time and again to be a person of immense compassion who led by example with humility and kindness.”

Herringon said the committee will have to discuss finding an interim superintendent and then in the months ahead decide how to approach a search for a permanent superintendent. By then, he said some of the issues may die down, especially with the initial Title IX report expected to be out next week.

“But I do think there will be a lot of noise for a long time to come,” Herrington said.

Herrington also lamented that Morris won’t be implementing his plan for addressing LGBTQIA issues. “It’s unfortunate that Mike came up with the comprehensive plan and he won’t be here to see it through,” Herrington said.

As one of the organizers of rallies in support of LGTBQ students and demands for meetings to be held about Morris, parent Jena Schwartz said accountability, transparency, and equity were sought.

“We have waited for a genuine apology and words of personal and professional responsibility that never came,” Schwartz said. “Today’s joint statement from the Union 26 and Regional School Committees and Mike Morris that Morris will be leaving his position as superintendent at the end of this month comes as a relief and a victory, though it sidesteps taking responsibility for the harm that has occurred.”

To Kairo Serna, a University of Massachusetts student and member of the Democratic State Committee, Morris is being shielded from accountability, and the severance package’s compensation comes as paraeducators in the district don’t make a living wage.

“Their choice to ignore any wrongdoing is a refusal to accept Morris’ role in enabling the homophobic and transphobic mistreatment of middle schoolers through his apathy and inaction, which victims and their families have continuously tried to speak out against,” Serna said.

Others had already called for Morris to be removed from his position. Maxine Oland, parent of a child harmed by bullying and gender discrimination in the middle school, has said Morris was notified about the problems for several months, yet as a mandated reporter didn’t intervene.

“I would like to state openly and unequivocally that I do not feel safe with Morris in charge of our schools,” Oland wrote in an opinion piece in the Gazette.

Executive session controversy

The executive session that led to the mutual parting of ways had its own controversy, with Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao briefly questioning its validity.

“What are we going to be negotiating about?” Shiao said. “My question is, what will we be negotiating with Mike about?”

Demling declined to elaborate, saying only that an update was happening that could only be provided in the executive session. “We have talked to our attorney about this,” Demling said.

Following the brief exchange, each committee took a roll call vote to go into executive session, with Shiao the lone dissenter. That led to the public being shut out of the meeting. Several participants had “protect trans kids” graphics on their camera feeds, and then used the Google Meet chat function to express their disappointment.

“Boo,” wrote Lucia Lopez, one of the high school students who helped write and research an article for The Graphic newspaper that detailed the allegations made in the Title IX complaint.

“Thanks to Jennifer for demanding transparency,” said Allegra Clark, a parent who also chairs the town’s Community Safety and Social Justice Committee.

The next regularly scheduled Regional School Committee meeting, which will include time for public comments, is supposed to be on Tuesday, likely at 6:30 p.m., at the high school library.

In advance of that meeting, state Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, issued a statement noting that they have been contacted by concerned constituents about bullying, disregard and disrespect of transgender and gender-diverse students at the middle school.

“We support the students and families of Amherst schools who are advocating for greater awareness and accountability around LGBTQIA rights and much clearer and more effective protections for transgender individuals in the schools,” the legislators wrote.

“We acknowledge the initial efforts to address bullying and transphobia through professional development, policy and community engagement and we look forward to comprehensive actions that incorporate community feedback,” Comerford and Domb wrote.

“We hope that this issue will be considered fully at an upcoming meeting of the Regional School Committee, in advance of the start of the new school year. We will certainly continue to pursue all related state-level work and resources, eager to be as supportive as possible to the district and its families.”

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