In wake of Amherst School Committee resignations, three new members could be appointed Sept. 26

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2023 6:11:24 PM
Modified: 8/29/2023 6:10:48 PM

AMHERST — Three new Amherst School Committee members could be appointed as soon as Sept. 26 under a plan unveiled by the Town Council and the remaining two elected members of the school panel Monday — a move prompted by the abrupt resignations last week of members Allison McDonald, Peter Demling and Ben Herrington.

With the committee unable to meet or vote due to a lack of quorum following the resignations of three of its five members this month, Monday’s discussion set in motion a plan in which eligible residents will be asked to submit statements of interest to the clerk of the Town Council, Athena O’Keeffe, by Sept. 20 at 4 p.m. and then attend the Sept. 26 meeting to respond to a series of questions that are being developed.

If not all candidates are interviewed or appointments are not completed on Sept. 26, the Town Council would reconvene on Oct. 2.

At the two-hour meeting on Monday, councilors and School Committee members discussed the best ways to interview and then appoint applicants. They also talked about how to take public comment, both about the candidates and questions that they will be asked to respond to.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said the model for the process is the one used when Eric Nakajima stepped down from the School Committee in the spring of 2020. At that time, no public comment was taken at the Town Council’s joint meeting with the School Committee, at which Heather Hala Lord was appointed to the vacancy.

“For purposes of this, in the past we have not had public comment,” Griesemer said, adding that the public will have its say on who should serve for the next two years on the School Committee at the Nov. 7 town election.

The positions vacated by Herrington, McDonald and Demling have to be filled by various dates in early October, according to the town charter. The two remaining committee members are Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes.

Shiao said she would like the public to be able to offer comments once the finalists are known. “It is an important decision coming before the Town Council and remaining School Committee members,” Shiao said.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said he worried about the Town Council meeting becoming a platform to lobby and a “campaign tool” for those who might also be running in the Nov. 7 election, while also seeking the temporary appointment. He said he isn’t sure the Town Council meeting should be opened up to that kind of dynamic.

Councilors suggested consulting with town attorney KP Law and the state’s Office of Political and Campaign Finance to see what level of politicking is allowed to take place using public resources.

If people running in November also put their names in for the appointments that would last until the new School Committee is seated on Jan. 2, District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said it might not be fair to those who only will have their names on the ballot.

Should there be significant public comment on behalf of candidates, Griesemer said she also worries about an uneven playing field for both Shiao and School Committee member Irv Rhodes, as incumbents who are seeking reelection, and anyone else who may be running on Nov. 7 but doesn’t apply to be appointed.

Griesemer said she may call a special meeting on Sept. 11 for public comment related to the vacancies. “I’m trying to make sure that the Town Council, with all of this on its plate, continues to attend to its other business,” Griesemer said.

There is also uncertainty about how exactly decisions will be made. With 13 councilors and two School Committee members, anyone appointed will need to garner at least eight votes, or a majority of those present. Shiao suggested each person announce the three people they want appointed.

The questions that will be asked of candidates, and the input the public may have on those, might also come through the Engage Amherst website.

District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier said public comment could yield questions that are fully reflective of the community. “To me that is the most important part of this,” Devlin Gauthier said.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said she anticipates before the council’s Sept. 11 and Sept. 18 meetings people will send questions they want asked, and at the same time advocate for certain candidates.

“We are going to be getting those from people who are beginning to campaign for particular candidates,” Schoen said.

Whatever happens, Shiao notes that the newly constituted School Committee could be part of initiating a search for a permanent superintendent to replace Michael Morris, whose service will end with his resignation effective Thursday.

Rhodes said the new School Committee will also be seated as budget season begins, and members will be at the start of a process that they may or may not be part of come Jan. 1.

“All five of us could be there in January, or none of us could be there in January. It could be a completely different group of people there,” Rhodes said. “I just want people to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of the situation and the challenges the Amherst School Committee is facing and will be facing going forward.”

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