School committee chair details ‘alarm bells’ over superintendent candidate

By EMILY THURLOW

Staff Writer

Published: 04-06-2023 8:17 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A week after the School Committee’s decision to rescind a job offer to superintendent finalist Vito Perrone because he used the salutation “Ladies” in an email, Chairperson Cynthia Kwiecinski spoke out for the first time on Thursday, saying that there’s more to the story.

“The general feeling was that there were too many concerns before we had even begun negotiating the rest of the contract and alarm bells were going off,” Kwiecinski said Thursday in an emailed statement to the Gazette.

Perrone, who is interim superintendent at West Springfield Public Schools, was offered the Easthampton superintendent position by the School Committee on the morning of March 24 and accepted.

Upon his acceptance, Perrone received an initial contract from the committee. Once he reviewed it, he emailed Kwiecinski and Executive Assistant Suzanne Colby with three requests: that the annual salary for fiscal years 2025 and 2026 be negotiated and not be less than the cost-of-living adjustment of 3% for both years; and that he be granted 30 vacation days and 40 sick days each year.

Kwiecinski initially said she would not be speaking publicly about details from the School Committee’s March 30 closed-door meeting, but because Perrone spoke publicly with the news media about it, she said she felt it was important that the committee provide more context. She provided a statement to the Gazette, adding that she would not be fielding other questions and would only address details that Perrone shared publicly.

After sharing Perrone’s counterproposal with committee members, Kwiecinski said “most members” believed that it was “extremely unprofessional” and “inappropriate” to address the chairperson “with a familiarity that he had not earned.” She said that negotiating with one’s future supervisors is a time to be more professional, not less.

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“It is true that I was insulted by the familiarity with which the candidate addressed me and the committee’s executive assistant in correspondence that was part of a salary negotiation,” Kwiecinski wrote in her email. “While I speak informally most of the time, if I am addressing a public official — especially in written communication, and even more so if engaged in salary negotiations — I would always use formal titles.

“The salutation ‘Ladies’ raised concerns among most that the candidate might make administrators and teachers feel uncomfortable if used in the future instead of calling them by their names or titles.”

On Wednesday, Colby wrote in a public Facebook post that she did not mind being referred to as a lady, though she respects those who think differently. Colby is not a member of the School Committee and has no voting power.

In addition to the salutation in Perrone’s correspondence, Kwiecinski said the committee had concerns about the candidate’s requests, saying that “leave totaling 70 days — potentially 14 weeks of paid time off in his first year as a superintendent — was unacceptable for a first-year superintendent.”

She also said committee members thought that his salary-related demands were “unreasonable,” as they were not contingent on performance reviews or evaluations. Perrone has said the committee’s initial offer was for less than he is making now.

School Committee member Laurie Garcia told the Gazette that she heard Kwiecinski was issuing a statement, and noted that it was sent without conversation with the full committee. Garcia said she wants there to be a peaceful resolution without hostility, and wished to say more on the matter, but was not able to provide further comment as she was attending a seder. She intends to make a full statement at the next School Committee meeting.

Calling the police

The final area of concern Kwiecinski addressed was being able to reach the superintendent. She said that the committee had expressly told each of the finalists — Perrone, Jonathan Bruno and Erica Faginski-Stark — that they would be reaching out to them at some point on March 23. But they were not able to reach Perrone when they attempted to contact him after 11 p.m.

“We tried every means to reach the applicant, eventually requesting a wellness check after more than an hour because some had genuine concern for his well-being. The committee could neither adjourn, nor reach the applicant,” she said.

The superintendent, Kwiecinski said, should be “available as needed 24/7, with reasonable allowances for personal matters and other obligations. Having expressly told him that we would need to speak with him, we were troubled by his lack of response and by his explanation.”

According to a recording obtained by the Gazette, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, who’s also a School Committee member, called the city’s dispatch and requested the well-being check. LaChapelle said committee members attempted to reach Perrone through various forms of contact and that concerns over his well-being were brought forward. and she made a call. She did not elaborate on which member brought the concern forward.

She did note that the agenda for March 23 stated that the committee would report on a preliminary verbal agreement in open session and they did not have that answer until he responded.

“Each item that I’ve mentioned, by itself, would be redeemable, but taken together it was becoming clear to most members that we would not be able to come to terms or work together effectively with the applicant,” Kwiecinski said.

Perrone’s perspective

When called for his reaction to the committee’s comments, Perrone challenged the committee’s use of the term “negotiation,” as he believes there never was one.

“I wasn’t even given a chance to negotiate or my due process,” he said.

Negotiations for the position were supposed to begin on the evening of March 30. Instead, Perrone said he was told in the executive session that a mutually agreeable contract could not be reached and that the committee was not able to enter into an employment contract with him. The same language appeared in a letter dated March 31 he received from the committee.

“They didn’t give me any opportunity to interact around negotiations … they did not accept a conversation about apologizing for offending anyone, which was not my intention,” he said.

When the committee told him they were not pleased with his use of “ladies” in an email, Perrone said it was called a “microaggression.” He felt their response as relayed to him was condescending.

“I’ve been an educator for 29 years. I have never intentionally disrespected anyone with whom I’ve been working — students, families or teachers. The statements shared from the community in support of me corroborate that,” he said.

Moreover, he said it was unreasonable for the committee to call him after 11 p.m. and then request a well-being check.

While he appreciates the “overwhelming” support he’s received from the community, Perrone reiterated that he decided to go public with the details of the executive session because he didn’t want people to think it was a failed negotiation. In the days that have followed, he said he was disheartened to hear that School Committee members have received threats.

“I don’t want anyone being threatened or hurt. I’m sorry that me going public has resulted in this,” he said. “It’s not right that people feel afraid. That’s nothing I want to continue.”

In spite of everything, Perrone said he would still love to work for the school district. For the time being, he’s unsure of how to move forward with the relationship with the School Committee.

“I love Easthampton. I do. But I’m not sure if there is a way forward,” he said.

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