Amherst School Superintendent Maria Geryk to reach public via blog

Last modified: Wednesday, January 08, 2014
AMHERST — With a student-created Twitter account sending out fake messages under her name and the rocky implementation of a new peanut and tree nut policy in the schools, Amherst School Superintendent Maria Geryk has decided to communicate directly with the public through her own blog.

“It’s about increasing communication among the schools, the families and community members and having a two-way dialogue,” she said in an interview this week.

The blog, which does not yet have a name, will be available on the school department’s website and will be updated and monitored daily by Geryk and Kimberly Stender, director of community, partnerships and volunteers. Geryk intends to have it going by the end of the month.

Along with that, she is initiating a Superintendent’s Advisory Group, a committee of parents and other community members who will meet regularly with her, providing a sounding board for school matters. Both ideas were suggested by members of the public, said Geryk.

“We seem to be able to get information out, but we’re not getting a lot back in” other than through word of mouth and second- and third-hand sources, she said. With a blog, Geryk said she will regularly provide reports about matters she is working on, such as budget issues and programs.

“It will be informative,” said Stender. “If people have questions or concerns, they’ll be welcome to write in and we will respond.”

For instance, both cited the recent controversy over Geryk’s move to protect students allergic to nuts and peanuts by not allowing those foods on school property. A blog, they said, could be used to announce and explain such decisions — in depth if necessary — before confusion and anger develops.

“I never thought the issue would be so polarizing,” Geryk said of the allergy policy, adding that she could have handled it better. “The process wasn’t helpful and I apologize for that.”

She said she is still unsure whether people are upset over her effort to keep nuts out of the schools, or over how she went about it, though Geryk said she followed procedures she uses routinely. The town and regional school committees will have the last word on that later this month, she said.

Key questions about the blog, she said, are how much time will it take to manage it and what level of public interaction she and Stender can handle. Those details will be discussed initially next week with the schools’ director of information systems, Jerry Champagne, and adjusted once the blog gets rolling, Geryk said.

“It will be fun,” said Stender. “It will be organic. We might start out with one thing in mind and find we can take it to the next level.”

Geryk said the blog will at least offer the chance for back-and-forth messages between her and those who post questions.

The school department has already begun using social media with a Twitter account @arpsma, which is growing every day, said Stender. It now has 137 followers.

But the Twitter account @ARHSSupt, using Geryk’s name and picture, has no connection to the superintendent or other school officials. “It will be helpful to let people know that is not mine, clever as it is,” said Geryk.

Started about a month ago, @ARHSSupt mostly has posted messages about school closings and humorous notes such as “Gaining followers is more difficult than managing the school.” One initial giveaway that it is not authentic is that Geryk is identified as the superintendent of Amherst Regional High School. It has 45 followers.

Geryk said she does not know who started the account and has not put much effort into finding out. “I know it’s kids just being creative, but you never know where it could go,” she said. “I just don’t want it to start a problem with parents who might start to follow it.”

Geryk added that she wants make sure people know that it is phony.

As for blog subjects, Geryk is eyeing topics such as the upcoming release of her school budget proposal, renovation plans for Wildwood Elementary School and a school regionalization proposal.

While she plans to get that going soon, the advisory committee will take longer to set up given that preparing next year’s school budget is taking most of her time, Geryk said. She makes her first budget presentation to the Regional School Committee Tuesday night.

Geryk said she has not decided yet how she will choose the advisory committee members but wants broad representation of school and community groups. She said she intends to have it in place by the spring.

Geryk said her latest plans add to efforts she has made since the School Committee asked during her evaluation last year that she improve public communication. Establishing a district-wide Family Center at the Amherst Regional Middle School in September is another way she has addressed that objective, she said.

“I want people to know that I am always willing to meet with them,” Geryk added. “Come in and talk.”