Tensions remain high over school principal hiring flap in Amherst

  • Former School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage speaks in front of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee on Tuesday. GAZETTE STAFF/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Amherst Superintendent Michael Morris, left, speaks at a forum two years ago. Tensions remain high over his decision to pass over a search committee’s recommendations for the middle school principal position. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 5/23/2018 10:43:57 PM

AMHERST — Tensions ran high at an Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee meeting Tuesday as school officials and community members continued to discuss the superintendent’s recent decision to pass over a search committee’s recommendations for the middle school principal position.

Some community members have called that decision discriminatory, given that two candidates of color were passed up for the position when the superintendent attempted to reappoint the current principal, Patty Bode, who does not yet have an administrative license.

Others have questioned the district’s hiring process, and whether the superintendent has too much authority to unilaterally make those decisions so late in the search process.

As a result, a committee has begun the process of updating their hiring practices, and school officials updated the public on that work Tuesday. The district’s assistant superintendent also laid out a timeline for hiring an interim middle school principal, and discussed the issue of licensure in the district.

Criticisms of district

The meeting began with public comment, during which Christine Harmon — a member of the middle-school principal search committee and parent of three children in the district — read a lengthy statement critical of the district’s hiring and licensure practices.

“It turns out in Amherst, the problem of unlicensed administrators leading our schools is not new. It is systemic, deep-seated and it’s led by white male privilege,” Harmon said. “I am here to address this pervasive practice of hiring unlicensed individuals to administrative positions in the Amherst public schools.”

Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima on several occasions warned Harmon against criticizing school officials directly by name or job title, which is against the committee’s public comment rules. Eventually, after Nakajima had gaveled multiple times, the committee moved into recess, leaving Harmon to continue reading her statement — which ran well past a three-minute limit — to around 30 audience members and only Shutesbury representative Stephen Sullivan, who voted no to a recess and stayed to listen.

Harmon, who has also filed an Office of Civil Rights complaint against the district over the superintendent’s decision, described the district’s process of applying for temporary “hardship” waivers for unlicensed administrators as one “that is primed to discriminate against highly qualified administrators from obtaining positions unless one white man decides they are the right fit for his​ establishment.”

When an educator is not licensed, a waiver can be granted, typically when there is an unsuccessful search for a qualified, licensed candidate. Harmon said in her statement that the district has previously applied for waivers for administrators by saying there was only one applicant for a position, when in some cases there were multiple candidates.

That issue was addressed by Assistant Superintendent of Diversity, Equity and Human Resources Doreen Cunningham, both at Tuesday’s meeting and in a May 14 letter to Superintendent Michael Morris and the Regional School Committee. In that letter, Cunningham wrote that after investigating, she discovered that information in some previous waiver requests had indeed been erroneous.

“The specific error that occurred was due to a filtering issue with our application software, which resulted in a misstatement about the number of candidates who applied for a few of our positions,” the letter read. “We acknowledged the error with DESE (the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) and we discussed collaborating together to improve our systems and protocols in this area.”

After completing an audit of licenses that she began after being hired in July 2017, Cunningham said she had informed unlicensed administrators of their need to obtain licensure. 

In her May 14 letter, Cunningham said that at the middle school, assistant principal David Ranen has since submitted his intent to retire and that assistant principal Alicia Lopez is returning to a non-administrative role next year. Crocker Farm Elementary School assistant principal Sharri Conklin and interim high school assistant principal Ericka Alshuler are also moving back to non-administrative roles in the district next year. Yaldira Brown, assistant principal at Wildwood Elementary School, will discuss with human resources what her options are for next year, the letter says.

In her public comment, Harmon said having unlicensed administrators in the district is a problem because they oversee discipline — something that disproportionately affects students of color and from lower-income families. Harmon said she sent her concerns to DESE, as a whistleblower.

Harmon and others have said several other principals are operating without licenses in the district. The Gazette could not reach Cunningham on Wednesday to confirm the number of administrators with licenses.

DESE confirmed to the Gazette that they are looking into waivers granted to educators in Amherst. 

“We’re reviewing the hardship waivers that Amherst requested during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 school years, but I wouldn’t call it an investigation,” education department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis said in an email to the Gazette. “Once we’re done, we’ll be in touch with the district to address any issues and develop plans for the future.”

Praise for superintendent

Some community members used the public comment period at Tuesday’s meeting to praise Morris for the work he does in the district to foster equity and hire a diverse staff.

“It sort of ends up being him against people complaining, and I don’t think we are taking into account his record,” Melissa Giraud said.

Tiffany Thibodeau, a math teacher at the middle school, brought forth a list of proposals from middle school teachers for how the district might be able to legally keep Bode and Lopez in their administrative positions at the middle school.

At a previous Regional School Committee meeting, a large group of middle school teachers came out in support of Bode, saying her tenure has been a bright spot at a school with high administrative turnover.

Former Regional School Committee Chairman Trevor Baptiste said on Tuesday, however, that the conversation should be about the legality of unlicensed administrators and the power of the superintendent. Any discussion of particular individuals is obscuring the larger and necessary conversation about systemic problems in the district, he said.

“The question has always been and still remains, unfortunately, to what extent a superintendent is willing to bend to the people’s will,” Baptiste said. “We should be laser focused on just that point.”

After the public comment period, Cunningham began by addressing the issue of licenses. She said that when she was hired in 2017, she implemented a policy that if someone was serving in a position on a waiver, their position would be reposted. To request another waiver, they would have to meet six progress points they could demonstrate to the district.

“Every educator who needed a waiver met with me,” she said, adding that the number of licensed teachers in the district is just under 99 percent. “We created a plan of action. This is back in August.”

 

With regards to the search for an interim middle school principal — who will serve for two years — Cunningham said that school staff, families and other community members contributed responses to a survey about what the job description should say. That job was posted on May 14, and will be filled on June 25.

Cunningham also gave an update on the search process review committee, which she said has met three times and is on target to complete its work by June 1. 

“Our purpose was to review what’s happening now in the district and just look and make recommendations of what can go better,” she said. “They’re committed to making sure this process works well.”

Cunningham was hesitant to give any details of their recommendations before the committee’s work is complete, but suggested that one change might be to include the superintendent earlier in the search process. Currently, the superintendent comes into the process at the end of the search.

Editors note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Shutesbury representative Stephen Sullivan voted against moving to recess and did not leave his seat.

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


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