Amherst school superintendent Geryk to receive $309,000 severance

  • Amherst School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage, right, speaks Tuesday beside Anastasia Ordonez after the committee met in an executive session to discuss the terms of departure for School Superintendent Maria Geryk at Amherst Regional High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee member Trevor Baptiste, left, speaks Tuesday beside Chairwoman Laura Kent, center, and Sarah Dolven after the committee met in an executive session to discuss the terms of departure for Superintendent Maria Geryk at Amherst Regional High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Amherst School Committee Chair Laura Kent, center, speaks beside Trevor Baptiste and Sarah Dolven after the committee met in an executive session to discuss the terms of departure for School Superintendent Maria Geryk at Amherst Regional High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Vince O'Connor, right, speaks to Amherst School Committee members Trevor Baptiste, from left, Laura Kent, Sarah Dolven, Anastasia Ordonez, Vira Douangmany Cage and Stephen Sullivan during public comment following the announcement of the terms of departure for School Superintendent Maria Geryk, Tuesday, at Amherst Regional High School. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Gazette Staff
Published: 8/10/2016 1:07:29 AM

AMHERST — Departing Superintendent Maria Geryk will receive $309,238 over the next two years in a separation agreement that will allow her to leave her position roughly two years before her contract is up.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 School Committees voted 5-3 to pay Geryk following two hours in a closed meeting Tuesday evening. It was the latest in a string of four executive sessions, totaling more than a dozen hours, to negotiate the terms of Geryk’s departure.

According to Laura Kent, chairwoman of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, the money will come from the school budget, not from insurance, though she stressed it will not impact students and teachers directly.

“That money is coming from funds very far away from the kids and staff,” Kent said.

She declined to comment further on the funding for the payout, but said there will be a presentation on the budget at the next meeting Wednesday, Aug. 17.

“Our members worked diligently over the course of 14 hours to understand the claim put before us and then to negotiate an appropriate separation that would meet terms of our contact and not put our district in further jeopardy,” Kent said, reading from a statement.

“This experience has put a mirror in front of our committee and made clear that we have a lot of work to do to minimize the risk of a similar situation in the future and to ensure the success of our future superintendents,” Kent continued.

Kent declined to release a copy of the agreement because it had not been signed Tuesday night. She said that soon-to-be released executive session minutes will reveal insight into the committee’s decision.

“I recognize the public’s questioning of the details of the settlement, and it is my hope that in expediting the approval of the executive session minutes and the documents to be released, that the community can digest the thought processes of each committee member,” Kent said.

Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage raised concerns that the counsel representing the school committees is part of a firm that has represented the superintendent on behalf of the district.

“I’m not in the agreement to pay the superintendent one penny for the separation,” Douangmany Cage said, receiving brief applause. “I think it would be a grave mistake to go ahead and approve such settlement terms. We’re not in a rush. Why not take our time and understand what we’re doing?”

According to Kent, Geryk will receive payment equal to one and a half years of salary and benefits, or $295,238 in the current fiscal year. Geryk earns $158,000 a year. Additionally, Geryk will receive $14,000 in fiscal year 2018 dependent on her health care and employment. Geryk has been superintendent since 2012. Her contract runs through June 30, 2018.

Geryk did not attend Tuesday’s meeting and could not be reached for comment following the committee’s decision.

Committee disagrees

The gridlocked school committees voted to go into executive session by a 5-3 vote at 5:17 p.m. Tuesday, promising to emerge from behind closed doors by 6 p.m.

Amherst-Pelham School Committee member Trevor Baptiste voiced his objection to entering executive session, saying that he felt “threatened and forced into this contract negotiation.” Members Steve Sullivan and Douangmany Cage also voted against entering the closed meeting.

The committees have debated the terms of Geryk’s separation since early July when the superintendent notified them, through her attorney, that she wanted to reach a financial settlement that would result in her leaving her post, according to Kent.

“Before we go into contract negotiations we should do an evaluation,” Baptiste said, referencing Geryk’s evaluation that was to be conducted July 13 and postponed. Instead, the committees held a closed meeting that night, and additional executive sessions July 20 and Aug. 1.

The committees remained shrouded from public view until 8:05 p.m., some two hours longer than expected.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Morris ordered pizza from Bruno’s, of Amherst, for spectators and committee members to snack on in the Amherst Regional High School library while they awaited the group’s decision.

Committee members returned to their posts with furrowed brows, some visibly distraught, to deliver the news to a crowd of some 30 interested parents, staff and community members.

Members Kent, Sarah Dolven, Anastasia Ordonez, Katherine Appy and Darius Modestow voted to approve the separation agreement. Cage, Sullivan and Baptiste voted against the agreement.

Following the vote, several members of the community participated in public comment. Vincent O’Connor said the committee “failed to rein in” the superintendent, leading to the pricey settlement.

Wildwood Elementary School Principal Nick Yaffe stressed that despite disagreements, the community must come together to provide a ready, stable environment for students when they begin school Aug. 31.

As the school committee scrambles to unify the district, Kent said Morris will likely step up and serve as acting superintendent, if he accepts the position.

During her time as superintendent, Geryk has been criticized for not being able to manage conflict. She has been at the center of several public controversies, including a stay-away order issued against Pelham parent Aisha Hiza in March, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination case that led to a $180,000 settlement with high school teacher Carolyn Gardner in July 2015, and anti-bullying presentations by Calvin Terrell in fall 2014.

Critics also have pointed to the high turnover in leadership at schools, with both Fort River and the Amherst Regional Middle School principals resigning this year. The schools will have temporary leaders for the 2016-17 school year

Before assuming her post at the helm of Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, Geryk, who lives in Amherst, served as interim superintendent in 2009 and 2010. Geryk joined the Amherst school system in 2002 as a special education administrator and previously worked for the Frontier and Gill-Montague regional districts and in Westfield as a school psychologist, special education teacher and school adjustment counselor.

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