Amherst and Regional school committees restocked with three interim members

  • Roger Wallace, a teacher at Fort River for four decades was one of the three residents chosen as interim members of the Amherst and Regional school committees. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2023 4:59:24 PM
Modified: 9/27/2023 4:58:36 PM

AMHERST — A retired public school teacher, a university professor and a restorative justice consultant are joining the Amherst School Committee following their election to fill three vacancies at a meeting of the Town Council and remaining school board members Tuesday.

Roger Wallace, who taught at Fort River School for almost 40 years, Gabriela Cornejo Weaver, a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts, and Katie Lazdowski, who offered expertise for a restorative justice program at Amherst Regional High School last school year, were chosen from a field of 11 residents who put their names in for the positions and were interviewed over the course of a 3½-hour meeting.

Each of the 13 councilors and two School Committee members, Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes, offered their three choices, with the only candidates achieving the necessary eight-vote threshold being Wallace, earning 11 votes, Weaver with nine votes, and Lazdowski with eight votes. The three appointments were then adopted unanimously during a follow-up vote.

“The candidates we chose are stellar candidates,” Rhodes said “I was really, really impressed by the field of candidates.”

While they will join the Amherst School Committee through Jan. 1, 2024, they also automatically become part of the nine-member Amherst Regional School Committee that includes Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett representatives, and could also serve on the Union 26 Superintendency Committee that will have a role in hiring the next superintendent.

They replace committee members Peter Demling, Allison McDonald and Ben Herrington, who resigned in late summer, and will work with interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter, who is also the finance director of the schools, following the departure of Superintendent Michael Morris at the end of August. Their interim tenures come as a Title IX investigation into allegations of bullying of LGBTQ students nears completion, with three middle school counselors placed on leave after the allegations came to light. The assistant superintendent also remains on paid leave, and two Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination lawsuits are active against the district.

Their selection came after responding to questions that included how they would ensure School Committee practices and policies are equitable, anti-racist, and affirming to people of diverse gender identities and ethnic backgrounds, as well as and how they would collaborate with the superintendent, while also holding that person accountable.

Weaver said she has actively educated herself on inclusion, equity, anti-racism, implicit bias and unacknowledged privilege.

“I will work to ensure that diverse voices and input will be included in our decision-making processes and in our considerations,” Weaver said. “In addition, I’m an immigrant from South America, so I can bring that particular lens to the conversation about diversity, though I know it’s just one lens.”

Lazdowski said she studies intersectionality, the idea of social and political identities resulting in unique combinations of discrimination and privilege, in education policy and practice, and has taught the topic in the College of Education at UMass.

“I can ensure that the School Committee’s practices, processes and decisions are framed in a way that best support the intersection of people’s identities and therefore will likely be supported by community members because I hold this lens,” Lazdowski said.

Wallace said he would bring a tiered approach, using his knowledge from being a parent and grandparent, as well as a classroom teacher.

“The key things for me is to listen, remember my own experiences because of my kids and grandkids, and then to seek help if I need it,” Wallace said.

Lazdowski said goals for the superintendent should be developed by centering the district’s mission statement in the process.

“Additionally, I would regularly invite students, educators and principals to come and present at meetings,” Lazdowski said. “Voices from the schools help to better understand how the superintendent’s leadership and the district’s mission are manifesting throughout the schools.”

In her work at UMass and elsewhere, Weaver said she has helped leaders achieve success, while also identifying where they have fallen short.

“I believe the best way to do this is to collaborate with the superintendent on setting goals, but also on determining the metrics that we’ll know if we’re moving toward or have achieved those goals,” Weaver said.

Wallace said improving test scores or hiring a more diverse staff are tangible goals that could be set.

“Clear goals that have verifiable and measurable results is one of the things we ask of students, and it should be one of the things we ask of the superintendent,” Wallace said. “So together, the superintendent and School Committee, through acquiring trust with each other, should agree on what success looks like before work on that goal begins.”

Before the final vote to ratify the slate of new committee members, At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg asked for further conversation because two candidates who had previous School Committee experience, Andy Churchill, who got seven votes, and Kerry Spitzer, who got five votes, were passed over. He wondered if there was value in having this expertise.

That didn’t sit well with District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam. “We had the vote. Any attempt to redo is not playing fair,” Pam said.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub, who along with District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis were the only two councilors who voted for all three of the new members, said experience already played a factor in her vote.

Rhodes said it will be up to members of the school committees to assist with the onboarding process.

Also interviewed were two candidates who are on the ballot for the town’s Nov. 7 election, with the winners to begin serving Jan. 2, 2024. Bridget Hynes and Laura Jane Hunter, though, only received one vote between them.

District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said there was so much talent among the 11 candidates that she worried that if those on the ballot were chosen for the interim seats, the town would be losing out on the passion and wisdom of others for three months.

Others interviewed for the positions included Amy Cronin DiCaprio, who received four votes, along with Hugh Friel, Vincent O’Connor and Richard Roznoy.

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