Teachers press school officials to retain Bode as ARMS principal


  • Amherst Regional Middle School Principal Patty Bode.

  • The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee meets on May 8, 2018, to discuss a path forward to finding a middle-school principal. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Published: 5/8/2018 11:56:09 PM

AMHERST — A packed house of more than 50 people turned out for a Regional School Committee meeting Tuesday to hear about the district’s path forward in the search for a middle school principal.

The meeting came after Superintendent Michael Morris irked some members of a screening committee when he decided to reject two candidates for principal, instead opting to keep interim Principal Patty Bode in place for a third year at Amherst Regional Middle School.

A member of that committee, as well as others in the community, have called that rejection discriminatory. The two candidates were an African-American man and a Latina woman, and Bode does not currently have the administrative license required by the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE. Ultimately, Bode declined the one-year position.

Morris said he does not regret the decision to reject the pool of candidates recommended to him by the screening committee, though he declined to go into specifics. Doing so, he said, would cross ethical and legal lines, and would undermine hiring processes in the future.

“For me, I had to consider the profile and the needs of the middle school, which has experienced incredibly high administrative turnover,” Morris said. “I made the determination that the pool — it wasn’t any particular candidate, but the pool — wasn’t sufficiently matched to the needs of the middle school.”

Morris did say he regrets offering Bode the job knowing she might not have her license in time. That regret, he stressed, has nothing to do with Bode’s capabilities as an administrator.

In a lengthy public comment period, many middle school teachers spoke out in support of Bode, whom they heralded as an exemplary principal.

“My first day of school at ARMS was the most remarkable first school day in my career as a teacher,” teacher Nadla Smith said. She credited Bode with creating an environment where she — an Afro-Latina immigrant who cares about equity and social justice — felt at home. “I more than ever felt that I was at the right school… the right school for a person like me.”

Going forward, the district is creating a committee to look into districtwide hiring practices, hopefully completing its work by the end of this month, said Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent.

Another screening committee will also be formed to search for an interim principal to take the helm at ARMS by the end of June for a two-year period. Morris said that after talking with DESE’s and the district’s attorneys, it became clear that there would be a problem if Bode did not get her license in time, even though she is on schedule to get it this summer.

“There are some real challenges in the timeline and some uncertainty that goes with that,” Morris said. Bode has previously been granted a waiver from the state for the school year.

Teachers who showed up in support of Bode comprised the vast majority of the public speakers Tuesday, and more than 50 signed a letter praising her work.

“We have weathered controversy and toxic leadership with grace and professionalism, always keeping students at the center of everything we do,” the letter reads. “In Patty, many of us felt that we had found a principal who fits our school, respects our staff, and gets our students.”

Many, however, raised concerns about the process, questioning whether a committee could assess districtwide hiring practices in just a few weeks, and whether that could then inform the current hiring process.

“Our hiring processes here have been askew for a long long time,” former Regional School Committee chairman Trevor Baptiste said, adding that the conversation should be about ensuring diversity in the district’s leadership ranks and not about any one person.

“I want to argue whether or not a process is in place to make that happen. And I think we are chasing red herrings when we talk about anything less than that.”

But Bode was the central topic of the night. Some teachers suggested creative ways for her to remain as principal, such as being co-principal with a teacher with an administrative license.

“You wouldn’t kick van Gogh out of the art gallery because he didn’t have an art degree,” teacher Eli Edinson said, describing her tenure as a bright spot in a school that as otherwise experienced high turnover in its leadership ranks. “Why would we blow that up? It seems insane to me.”

A letter signed by around 50 teachers suggested staff be elected to an interview committee, allowing the process of reviewing hiring practices to continue into the fall.

Speaking after the meeting, Bode said she just wants what’s best for the school, and praised Amherst teachers for their professionalism. She said she chose not to accept the interim position after learning the implications if she did not have her license by the time the district needs to name a principal.

“It has truly been the pinnacle of my education career,” she said of her time as principal. “It saddens me to leave, and I let Dr. Morris know that if there were a position I could apply to when I was licensed … I would be interested in applying in the future.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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