Easthampton chooses LeClair for superintendent

  • Superintendent candidate Allison LeClair, who is the assistant superintendent of Agawam public schools, talks to Amy Gauger, a parent and a teacher at Center/Pepin School, prior to her interview by the School Committee, Tuesday, at Easthampton High School. The committee voted 4-3 Wednesday to hire LeClair. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Allison LeClair, second from left, who is the assistant superintendent of Agawam public schools and is a candidate for Easthampton school superintendent, talks with a group of people, including At-large City Councilor Daniel Carey, and School Committee members Laurie Garcia, second from right, and Marissa Carrere, prior to her interview by the committee, Tuesday, April 3, 2018 at Easthampton High School. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Andrew Berrios, center, who is the principal of Smith Academy in Hatfield and a candidate for Easthampton school superintendent, talks with At-large City Councilor Daniel Carey, left, and Easthampton High School Principal Kevin Burke, prior to his interview by the School Committee, Wednesday, April 4, 2018 at the high school.

  • Andrew Berrios, who is the principal of Smith Academy in Hatfield and a candidate for Easthampton school superintendent, talks with Alice Wanamaker, a ninth-grade student at Easthampton High School, prior to his interview by the School Committee, Wednesday, April 4, 2018 at the high school. Wanamaker was interviewing him for the Easthampton Eagle, the school newspaper.

@mjtidwell781
Published: 4/4/2018 11:39:17 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The choice came down to taking a risk on passion or going with a proven track record ready to hit the ground running as the Easthampton School Committee voted on a new superintendent Wednesday night.

After two full days of site visits, meet-and-greets and public interviews that wrapped up a process lasting several months, the committee selected Allison LeClair as the district’s new superintendent from two finalists.

Between LeClair and the other finalist, Andrew Berrios, the committee said the choice was a win-win situation.

LeClair has been assistant superintendent of Agawam public schools since 2012. Berrios has been principal of Smith Academy since 2012, and was vice principal of Chicopee Fairview Veterans Memorial Middle School from 2009 to 2012.

“I want to thank the search committee for giving us two excellent candidates who have so much to offer the district,” School Committee member Marissa Carrere said.

During the jam-packed final two days, first LeClair on Tuesday then Berrios on Wednesday took turns visiting all of the schools in the district and meeting with school officials before heading to Easthampton High School for meet-and-greets and public interviews.

On their respective nights, the candidates fielded the same 12 questions from the School Committee on such topics as handling incidents of bias, balancing educational mandates with budget concerns and dealing with polarized viewpoints.

After a five-minute recess following Berrios’ interview on Wednesday, all seven School Committee members shared their thoughts on the two candidates or made their case for the candidate they thought was the best fit.

The committee then unanimously decided it was ready to vote. In an anonymous written ballot, the committee chose LeClair, 4-3.

The committee then passed a motion to make a unanimous voice vote, and each committee member chose LeClair. Chairwoman Cynthia Kwiecinski then called to extend the offer to LeClair, who accepted.

Divided committee

During the discussion before the vote, the committee was divided, asking themselves and each other whether it was more important to hire a candidate ready to take on the role currently needed by the district or to choose a candidate with a greater vision beyond taking care of the day-to-day.

Marin Goldstein said he was torn between the two candidates and until the vote had not made up his mind. He said there were pros and cons to both.

“We’re at a threshold and we’re looking at how we move forward,” he said. “It’s a risk to see if Berrios will grow into the position … LeClair has the experience to step into the role.”

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said Berrios seemed to be a good match for cultural competence and had day-to-day experience in creating cultural competency, but said LeClair clearly showed a focus on implementation and budget considerations.

Kwiecinski spoke strongly in favor of Berrios throughout the discussion, saying she was looking for a candidate who is passionate and willing to reach out to the community.

“I want our new superintendent to inspire the community, instill trust, and make them feel it’s a great place again,” she said.

Laurie Garcia said she was most struck during the search process by her site visit to Agawam schools where LeClair is assistant superintendent.

Garcia said she spoke to 24 people on the site visit who all spoke highly of LeClair and said she is the first person parents go to for concerns. Garcia said she was told these often never make it to the superintendent because LeClair finds solutions that parents are happy with.

“I heard that her calm, reasonable and experienced nature has allowed her to deal with incidents in Agawam,” Garcia said.

Shannon Dunham said Berrios was winning for her by one point before the ballot vote.

“I kept hearing words I wanted to hear last night (during LeClair’s interview), which I realized are Easthampton buzzwords,” Dunham said. “Berrios blew me away and he has not once said those words I thought I wanted to hear.”

Jonathan Schmidt said both candidates discussed focusing on “the whole child” and on social-emotional health, key points for him.

“There are a lot of wounds that need to be healed in the district and there will be more,” Schmidt said. “The question for me is who is going to be the most capable of healing the community and bringing people together?”

Carrere said there is a lot going on in the district right now and the committee needed to make a decision as representatives of the community.

“Our community is craving a fresh start,” Carrere said. “But I also hear a desire for experience.”

Committee members agreed that LeClair had more central office experience, and that bringing Berrios on from his role of principal of a small school in Hatfield would be a risk. The committee members spoke of Berrios’ passion and excitement, but asked if taking a risk for change would be worth the learning curve.

“The risk can’t be denied, but if not Easthampton as a place to grow, then where?” Schmidt said.

The committee will reconvene to work out contract negotiations this week for the position with a salary range of $140,000 to $150,000. LeClair is set to start July 1, pending successful contract negotiations.

She will replace Nancy Follansbee who has served as superintendent of Easthampton schools for eight years and who has worked in various positions for the department for more than 20 years.

Public interviews

In the public interviews, both candidates said the students in Easthampton had a lot to say and had been vocal about what they want in their schools. Both candidates spoke of the importance of social-emotional learning, and of the pride they saw in the school district on their site visits.

LeClair and Berrios also both said they would want to fully assess and understand the 10-point, three-year plan for Easthampton High School created by the current superintendent. The plan, now nearing the end of its first year, is aimed at improving the climate and culture of the high school after a civil rights investigation by the attorney general’s office found racial disparity in discipline at the school last year.

LeClair said she would approach the issue as a systemic one, saying that bias does not happen in isolation and that she would want to secure funding for bias training for all staff, teachers and students in the district.

Berrios said he would want to assess the plan to see if goals are being met thoroughly and that all the work is being done.

Throughout her interview, LeClair emphasized her focus on data.

“Do your due diligence, ask questions, gather your data,” she said. “I try to get all the information that I can.”

She said she has “poured her heart and soul” into her administrative work, which she said would be a benefit if she were to be hired.

Berrios spoke of bringing in new technology to schools and providing technology education, as well as teaching students critical thinking skills to tackle problems and come up with solutions. He emphasized his interpersonal skills and spoke of bringing parents into the school community and connecting with students and staff on a personal level.

“Our schools need to be welcoming and open to all,” Berrios said. “I mean, this is public education after all.”

Prior to the public interviews, members of the community filtered in and out of the Easthampton High School cafeteria to meet the two finalists and ask them questions about their backgrounds, expertise and vision for Easthampton schools.

Rebecca Belcher-Timme, who has two children in the school district, said she came to the meet-and-greet to get a sense for the candidates and hear why they’re excited to come to Easthampton if offered the position.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for new invigoration,” she said. “When there’s change at the top, a lot of interesting things can happen.”

At-Large City Councilor Daniel Carey said he came both evenings to meet each candidate because he himself attended Easthampton High and he said that public schools are a priority for him.

“We hope to get someone who will stick around for a while as superintendent,” he said.

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.


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