Amherst School Committee candidates make their cases at forum, discuss new superintendent qualities, anti-racism

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Published: 10/20/2023 10:20:15 AM
Modified: 10/20/2023 10:18:58 AM

AMHERST — Candidates to serve on the Amherst School Committee say they will make sure all community voices are heard as decisions are made, and that the next superintendent should share the town’s values of diversity and inclusion.

Six of the seven people running for five seats at the Nov. 7 town election, including incumbents Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes, and challengers Sarah Marshall, Bridget Hynes, Laura Jane Hunter and Deborah Leonard, fielded a range of questions during a League of Women Voters forum Wednesday. Only challenger Martha del Carmen Toro was absent.

The seven candidates for six seats as Jones Library trustees were also on hand.

Shiao said she brings an anti-racist lens to decisions, explaining that she thinks about how to make practices accessible to the community and different ways of approaching problem solving.

“It also means talking with people who are not like me, talking to people from different backgrounds, and deeply listening to what they say, especially if they’re coming at things from a different perspective,” Shiao said.

Leonard said she would set anti-racist as goals for the superintendent and have ways to measure how these goals are being met.

“An important part of this for the school system is understanding the ways in which racism is present in the schools, so that would involve communication and that would involve reaching out to all the voices in the community,” Leonard said.

Marshall said anti-racist work should be done at several levels and she would push such a policy through oversight of the superintendent.

“I think it would be useful for the committee itself to have training in anti-racism,” Marshall said.

“I don’t want to talk about anti-racist,” Rhodes said. “I want to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion. I want to be able to look through that lens at our schools, how we staff our schools, how we teach our curriculum and how we treat our kids.”

Hynes said she feels it important that everyone is seen, heard and listened to.

“But we also have to work really on a lot of the structural pieces so that honors classes are not predominantly one group of students and the regular college prep classes are another group,” Hynes said.

Hunter has done a lot of thinking about the relationship to race and racism.

“We need representation at all levels,” Hunter said, noting that dozens of languages are spoken in Amherst’s schools. “I also recognize our systems and structures inherently privilege white people all the time.”

The next superintendent

On hiring a new superintendent, Rhodes said the next leader needs to carry out the wants of the School Committee.

“The chief characteristic is the ability to manage a very complex organization and to be able to communicate not only with the staff, but also the community, and the School Committee,” Rhodes said.

A “miracle worker” is what the district may need, Marshall said.

“I want someone who can inspire the whole community with a vision of success and excellence and that we can do better than we have,” Marshall said.

Shiao said the next superintendent should be highly qualified and experienced, with the lived experience of being part of an historically marginalized community.

“I am also going to be looking for someone who has proven they can stay when things get hard,” Shiao said. “It’s a hard job.”

Hunter said a leader should have deep understanding of who is not part of the dominant community and be committed to social justice and racial equity and undoing white supremacy.

“We have this incredible opportunity to bring in a new superintendent who can be a real leader, who is not going to be afraid to handle hard and difficult decisions. Ideally we will be able to have somebody who is able to navigate how Amherst operates,” Hunter said.

Leonard said the person should check boxes, but also have a managerial track record of leading diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

“I’m also looking for someone who communicates well with all people in our community, and would really like someone who communicates well with students, teachers and principals and works from a team-building approach,” Leonard said.

The next superintendent should be drawn from a diverse pool of candidate and understand the climate of schools, academic excellence and inclusiveness, Hynes said.

“In the superintendent I really want someone who can be collaborative with community and parents and educators, someone who is a pedagogical expert, data driven and evidence based,” Hynes said.

Jones Library trustees

Much of the focus for the five Jones Library trustees and the two challengers seeking the six positions was on the expansion and renovation project of the Jones Library building, and how the two-year project will impact services.

Incumbent Farah Ameen said she supports the project because it help provide more services.

“Our community has a lot of evolving needs, and once we expand and renovate and are in a sustainable building, we will be able to serve the evolving community, especially those without access to resources,” Ameen said.

Incumbent Robert Pam said challenges remain on raising money to support the project and ongoing operations, and during the closing of the main building for two years, efforts will be made to keep programming effective during that time.

Eugene Goffredo, one of the challengers, said when the new library opens, increased programming will come with it.

“That’s going to require a lot of cooperation, lots of communication. It’s going to be challenging, but I certainly think the town, and the trustees and certainly the staff, will provide it,” Goffredo said.

Tamson Ely, also an incumbent, said the challenge will be having a temporary site on a public transportation route.

“I think that we need to keep the vision of the expanded and renovated library in mind while we deal with the issues during construction. It will be very exciting to have this new library that will better serve all populations in Amherst, especially the currently underserved populations,” Ely said.

Austin Sarat, current president, said the expanded library will be a model for historical preservation and provide improved services. He said the challenge is to “attend to threats that libraries face all across the country, (and) those threats have already appeared in this town.”

He cited the drag queen story hour that caused a protest outside and requests and demands that books be removed from shelves.

Edward McGlynn, another challenger, said he worries about communication from trustees and the costs of the building project.

“The process through which the renovation, the votes, the campaigning, the disagreements, took its toll on the town, and I think communication will be a key going forward,” McGlynn said.

Incumbent Lee Edwards said the library’s mission of reaching out to underserved is essential.

“I just want to echo and support the ongoing effort of trustees, the Justice, Equity and Diversity committee, to work with the community to ensure that they are in fact serving those people,” Edwards said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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