Letter by Carol Ross saying she feared ‘race-baiting’ at forum in Amherst angers WHMP officials

Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2014
AMHERST — A letter sent to all Amherst School District parents and staff by the woman hired to heal racial divides said she feared “race-baiting” would be part of a radio station forum held here last week. That angered radio station officials who met with Carol Ross and other town leaders Monday seeking an explanation.

As a result, WHMP morning host Bob Flaherty said Ross, the town’s new Climate and Media Specialist, has agreed to appear on his show to discuss the charge. He plans to schedule it for next week.

“Everything in that letter will have to be clarified when Carol and I sit down,” Flaherty said in an interview Tuesday. “I’m not trying to perpetuate this thing, but we’re trying to reach out to her and reach some point of conciliation.”

Ross, School Superintendent Maria Geryk, Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson and Town Manager John Musante backed out of the forum they had agreed to attend the day before the event last week saying they preferred instead to focus on “positive momentum.” Other panelists at the forum Thursday included two recent Amherst Regional High School graduates, two community activists, a former Amherst principal, the head of the Amherst teachers union and a parent. It was held on the Amherst Town Common and broadcast live.

Memo from Media and Climate Communications Specialist for Amherst Carol Ross on why school officials pulle... by Kristin Palpini Hale

But in a letter sent to parents and staff, Ross wrote: “We have to be committed to authenticity and determined to create an appropriate platform to do so, and not succumb to or encourage sensationalism, rhetoric, impatience or insensitivity to the variety of voices and needs within our community. My request to refrain from participating in what I felt would be a basic media tactic called race-baiting ... was honored and supported by this administration.”

The letter was an attachment to an email explaining how Ross sees her role in dealing with racial issues.

Ross was hired recently to work with the schools and residents in an effort called Amherst Together to ease racial tensions, which flared up in the schools last year.

What Ross meant by “race-baiting” still is not clear, Flaherty said, even after the meeting held at Town Hall which included him, Ross, Geryk, Town Manager John Musante, WHMP station manager David Musante, who is the town manager’s brother, WHMP news director Denise Vozella and station brand manager Monte Belmonte. “A lot of it was vague. It wasn’t really spelled out,” Flaherty said, though it was his impression that Ross’s worries were grounded in her knowledge of other incendiary talk show hosts, not him.

“I don’t think she knows me. I don’t think she listens to the show much,” he said.

In her letter, Ross wrote that she asked the radio station to postpone the forum until expert panelists could be included. That, she said, “was based solely on inflammatory statements in an email sent by Mr. Flaherty two days before the discussion.”

Ross, Geryk and John Musante did not respond to requests from the Gazette for comment Tuesday.

Flaherty said the email, which he did not consider inflammatory, was sent in response to a request from a staff member in Geryk’s office who asked for list of questions two days before the event.

He said he was taken aback. “My journalistic ethics kicked in, because that’s not something we normally do,” said Flaherty, a former reporter for the Gazette.

But he said he tried to give some sense of where the conversation might lead, such as statistics on the hiring of people of color in the school district. “I told them that they should be prepared for certain things, in the spirit of giving them a little heads-up,” he said.

When the school and town officials contacted him the next day to say they would not take part, Flaherty said, they indicated that they were leery about the fact that, in addition to the panelists, members of the public would be allowed to take the microphone and make comments during the broadcast.

“I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt, they thought there was a bit of a misunderstanding about that,” he said. They feared that would turn the discussion away from the focus they wanted on their plans to improve race relations in the schools and in town. They did not want to not dwell on tensions from the past year, he said. Those included a gun threat, racist graffiti aimed at a teacher and a racially motivated fight at the middle school.

Flaherty said he tried to reassure them that, while those issue might come up, the focus would be on future efforts and that he could cut off a long-winded or inappropriate speaker.

“With these forums, we try to put together panels with different points of view represented, we’re not trying to be Jerry Springer,” he said. “We weren’t purposely looking for conflict and drama just for the sake of conflict and drama.”

The forum, which lasted two hours, ended up drawing just a handful of comments from the some 40 people who gathered on the Town Common, and most of those were calls for increased efforts to erase achievement gaps among students, or appeals for greater harmony among races.

In her letter, which was sent after the forum, Ross praised those who participated, but defended the decision by school and town officials to stay away. “Amherst Together will not be a sideshow to appease sensationalism,” she wrote. “We have real work to do that will take patience and collaborative effort.”

Pat Ononibaku, a parent, restaurant owner and community activist who was one of the panelists and who helped line up participants, said she was dismayed by Ross’s comments, which she had heard earlier in a telephone conversation with her.

“Carol Ross is entitled to her opinion,” Ononibaku said. “I will still support her, but I was disappointed. We all want to support the school district.”

Ononibaku said the email she got from Flaherty asking her to take part was “very, very positive. That’s why I got interested. Nobody benefits from negativity,” she said. “I don’t think the radio station had any hidden agenda.”

Vira Douangmany Cage, another parent and community activist, said she hopes people who did not hear the live broadcast last week listen to the podcast of the event called “Reading, Writing and Racism,” which is available on GazetteNET.com.

“It would be a shame if parents who did not hear the broadcast are bought into the district’s unfounded fears that somehow, a retired elementary school principal, two recent graduates, an education association union leader, an Asian American, African American and Latino parent — that somehow, we can’t be trusted to speak from our own experiences and share the extensive work we’ve had our hands in to help the district an our community move forward,” she wrote in an email to the Gazette.

Flaherty said WHMP station manager David Musante was more upset by Ross’s letter than he was. “He felt that the radio station was insulted, that I was insulted,” Flaherty said. “The way I look at it, it’s just politics. I don’t take it that seriously. I would never demand an apology. Carol Ross has agreed to come on a radio show with me and the conversation we will have will be rather meaningful. Maybe good things will come out of it.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@Gazettenet.com.