How Easthampton superintendent hire was handled helped spur School Committee resignation

  • Former Easthampton School Committee member Shannon Dunham, pictured in 2017 during a candidate community forum, is speaking out about her experience with the search for a new superintendent. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Easthampton School Committee members, from left, Cynthia Kwiecinski, Shannon Dunham, Laurie Garcia and Jonathan Schmidt are sworn in on Jan. 2, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/24/2023 8:53:41 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Shannon Dunham announced more than a week ago that she was resigning from her role on the School Committee to give herself time to recover from a medical procedure. While her statement via social media certainly was true, Dunham has since added that it was not the only reason she decided to walk away from the committee.

In an interview with the Gazette, Dunham explained that circumstances surrounding the superintendent search process proved to be stressful, especially in the midst of recovering from a stroke more than a year and a half ago.

“It was a combination of things. … I had my surgery coming up and thought, ‘I just can’t do this anymore,’” she said. “I couldn’t do this to myself. I have to take care of me. That’s why I decided to step down.”

Dunham, elected to the committee in 2017, said she did not agree with the way events transpired after the School Committee offered the superintendent position to finalist Vito Perrone, and then rescinded it less than a week later after Perrone included “Ladies” as a salutation in an email.

She also said she was not in favor of the committee requesting a police officer be sent to Perrone’s home on March 23 for a “well-being check” at such a late hour when he did not pick up the phone from the committee, which was offering him the superintendent job.

“It was terrible,” she said. “They considered the email from Vito unprofessional, but sending the police to his home at 12 a.m. isn’t? We should have waited until the next day to offer him the job.”

Dunham said she intended to speak out on the matter at the April 10 School Council meeting, but decided against it after Chairperson Cynthia Kwiecinski cautioned members from discussing information that Perrone had not disclosed to the public.

“I had prepared a statement that I wanted to share that night,” Dunham said. “You can’t expect me to sit there and redo all of my notes.”

That same night, in a 5-1 vote, the committee decided to offer Erica Faginski-Stark the position. Faginski-Stark has since withdrawn her candidacy after students from the high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance club flagged a Facebook account with Faginski-Stark’s name that contained posts they described as “conservative transphobic rhetoric a multitude of times.”

Dunham, who originally voted in favor of Perrone, dissented in that vote while committee member Laurie Garcia abstained.

In Dunham’s statement, which she shared with the Gazette, she stated that although addressing an email with “Ladies” isn’t the most professional tone, she didn’t find it disrespectful and didn’t think others should either.

“This is not who we are. We make the best decisions for our school community. We deliberate for hours to make sure we are making good and fair and thoughtful decisions, not ones made in haste. Ever,” she wrote. “I am not proud to be a member of this committee right now.”

She also noted that she personally received close to 300 emails from residents, parents and teachers in the wake of the committee rescinding the offer. Several of those emails, she said, were in favor of the committee reversing that decision.

Dunham told the Gazette that her resignation is not yet “official,” and that she intends to participate in Tuesday night’s School Committee meeting at which the next steps in the superintendent search will be discussed.

What happened?

Contract negotiations with Perrone were slated to take place on the night of March 30. In a recent interview with the Gazette, Perrone again recalled what took place. While attending a fundraiser at the high school for the We The People civics class, he went into a conference room to attend the virtual negotiations.

Shortly thereafter, the committee asked him to hop out of the meeting for approximately 45 minutes while members discussed the proceedings. When they finished, he received a text message asking him to rejoin the meeting. Perrone says he was told by Kwiecinski that the committee was rescinding his job offer because he used “ladies” as the address of an email to Kwiecinski and Suzanne Colby, executive assistant to the committee.

In the email, Perrone requested 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 for an additional four vacation days each year. Perrone also requested 40 sick days for his first year of employment as a superintendent and 18 days each contract year after, citing that he had accrued a reasonable amount of sick days during his previous six years working in the district.

“There was never a discussion, a negotiation about the three requests that I had made. At no point in that session was that mentioned,” Perrone said. “I was shocked. I was flabbergasted.”

According to Dunham, negotiations with Perrone were never discussed during the committee’s executive session.

After Perrone left the meeting, Dunham says Kwiecinski stated that she was “really offended” by the “ladies” remark and called it a microaggression. Dunham said she thought committee members had an alternate “agenda” for rescinding the job offer, but was unsure what their true intentions were.

“We never talked about the negotiations. They had made a decision that they were going to move forward. We never even talked about negotiations and what Vito asked for,” Dunham said. “Cindy went into the conversation with her own agenda. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s wrong.”

Garcia also told the Gazette that what Perrone and Dunham shared was true.

“It’s exactly what happened,” Garcia said. “I keep on having this vision playing over in my mind that makes me sick: After he was told that the offer was rescinded, he took his glasses off and he’s looking into the camera zoom screen. And he said, ‘You mean we’re not even going to talk? That’s it? Because I said ‘ladies?’ He was so shocked. It was horrific. There was no dialogue.”

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, who is a member of the committee, said she didn’t agree that members went into the executive session with an “agenda” relating to the search. She said that each member brings their own thoughts and perspectives, and noted that members have changed their minds and their votes.

Initially, LaChapelle and committee member Marin Goldstein both voted in favor of Perrone, but later cast a vote for Faginski-Stark.

“This has definitely been a tough process with pain points that are unusual, but we each represent different parts of the community. I’m not at all surprised we didn’t go in as a mono opinion,” LaChapelle said.

The mayor also said the committee offered a contract pending successful negotiations and Perrone came back with his offers that stemmed from those conversations. In the end, she said the committee had concerns with his overall offer and they just “couldn’t close the gap.”

Kwiecinski and fellow committee members Megan Harvey, Ben Hersey, and Goldstein did not respond to requests for comment as of press time.

Meeting minutes from the March 30 executive session have not yet been approved or released to the public. However, Garcia says that even when those minutes are released, there will likely be no “revelation.”

According to Dunham, the vote to rescind the job offer during the executive session was 5-1 with Garcia dissenting and Dunham abstaining.

“These weren’t good reasons not to hire him. It was insane,” Dunham said. “It was a ‘feeling,’ that’s what they said.”

Garcia said she requested discussion before a vote to rescind the job offer was taken, but that was rejected.

“If we truly had good-faith negotiations, he would be the superintendent because he is a reasonable, respectful professional and he has a growth mindset,” she said. “We just never had a chance to discuss anything with him.”

What’s next?

The committee is scheduled to reconvene at a virtual meeting on Tuesday at 6 p.m. and will include a discussion on the superintendent search and/or potential vote on a candidate for the next superintendent.

Besides Perrone and Faginski-Stark, the committee also has an option to offer the the superintendent position to the third superintendent finalist, Jonathan Bruno, who is the current director of learning and teaching at Berkshire Hills Regional School District in Stockbridge.

The agenda states that Kwiecinski will contact a candidate to be the next superintendent, pending successful negotiations.

LaChapelle said that the committee could also instead decide to go with an interim superintendent.

“Both are options,” she said. “I expect discussion will be driven by our goal of providing support, routine and a structured schedule for students and staff, and what the committee thinks is the best way to get there.”

She also noted that offering the position to Perrone now would be inherently unfair to the finalist Bruno.

To Garcia and Dunham, Perrone remains a strong and viable candidate for the superintendent position.

Dunham questioned why the committee might consider Bruno when he was originally scrapped from consideration.

“He’s not ready. We need somebody with experience, or at least a knowledge of the system and how it works. I think (Bruno) is too new,” Dunham said. “I will continue to stand by Vito as the best candidate for Easthampton. He’s still an amazing human being that I think will take this (situation) , learn from it and do the best he can to fix it in whatever way possible.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at
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