Town and school officials back out of WHMP radio’s broadcast on racial issues in Amherst

Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2014
AMHERST — Four Amherst officials backed out of a live broadcast by radio station WHMP on racial issues the day before Thursday’s planned event, saying the town and schools are in the early stages of an effort to unite the community and the officials want to focus on “positive momentum.”

“We are unable to participate at this time,” Town Manager John Musante and Schools Superintendent Maria Geryk said in a joint statement sent to the Gazette. “We are in a particularly delicate phase in our early efforts to engage the whole community.” Musante and Geryk said they would be willing to participate in a future forum.

The two other officials bowing out are Amherst Regional High School principal Mark Jackson and Climate and Media Specialist Carol Ross, recently hired to examine racism in town.

Bob Flaherty, the WHMP morning show host who will lead the panel with news director Denise Vozella, said the forum is expected to include Jean Fay, the head of the Amherst teachers’ union, two community activists who are parents, Vira Douangmany Cage and Pat Ononibaku, Haydenville minister Andrea Ayvazian, and two recent Amherst Regional High School graduates. It will go on despite the officials’ change of heart.

“We’re still going to talk about where we go from here, what happened last year and whether there really is such a thing as institutional racism in Amherst,” Flaherty said in a telephone interview.

The broadcast is scheduled to take place on the Amherst Town Common from 8 to 10 a.m. and can be heard live on 1400 AM and online at WHMP.com. In case of rain it will be moved to the Bangs Community Center at 4 Boltwood Walk.

Called “Reading, Writing and Racism,” the forum is to address the issues that have been of key concern in the Amherst schools following a number of high-profile incidents during the last school year, including the targeting of black math teacher Carolyn Gardner with racist graffiti, according to the radio station’s website

Flaherty said he was surprised by the last-minute decision, which he said came after he sent an email to Geryk Tuesday indicating that last year’s troubles would be part of the discussion and that the direction of the conversation would be shaped by the participants. Those incidents included a gun threat at the high school, a beating at the middle school and threatening messages aimed at Gardner, who left her job in May.

Douangmany Cage, a member of the Schools Equity Task Force, formed by the School Committee to examine racial issues, and Ononibaku, a downtown restaurant owner, have been involved in several rallies and other events during the past school year criticizing the way school officials handled the problems and other racial issues in the schools.

“They don’t want to revisit the past at all,” Flaherty said of the officials. He said Musante, Geryk and Ross told him in a phone call Wednesday morning that they feared the event would turn into a “media circus. They think it’s all going to be sound bites on the evening news and then they’d be right back where they started, on the defensive,” he said.

Instead, Geryk and Musante said in the joint statement, they prefer to focus on the work Ross is doing in the initiative called Amherst Together, in which she is interviewing community members to get a handle on the racial tensions that have roiled the community.

The broadcast had been in the planning stages for weeks, according to Flaherty. “It was pretty well spelled out in the emails back and forth that this was not just going to be a discussion of the 2015 school year,” he said, referring to steps, in addition to Ross’s hiring, that school officials are taking to improve conditions.

Douangmany Cage, a parent who has been outspoken at town rallies and meetings on racial issues, said Wednesday she would honor her commitment to participate in the forum, but is disappointed that the town and school officials have dropped out.

“I planned to make the best use of the time for us all to present a united front, despite the fact that there are unresolved or contentious issues,” she said. “We would be very civil to each other, keeping the children in mind. It is important to go into the school year with everyone coming together.”

The statement sent by Musante and Geryk came in response to phone calls and emails sent by the Gazette to all four officials who declined to participate. It said that the hiring of Ross “is assisting us in achieving our goals of fostering a healthier climate of civility, inclusivity and respect in the community. This decision honors the foundation that Carol Ross is laying for all of us to begin the new school year.”

Monte Belmonte, brand manager of the radio station, said he was sorry to see the shape of the panel change at the last minute. “We would have loved to have all those voices heard and it’s unfortunate that they decided not to participate, but I think it’s an important conversation that needs to happen,” he said,

Douangmany Cage said she hopes the school and town officials eventually will agree to take part in some type of public discussion on racial issues. “Hopefully if we don’t do it on the air with the radio program there will be other opportunities to make progress in a different forum that they are comfortable with.”

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