In reversal, Morris interested in Amherst school chief job

  • Amherst School Interim Superintendent Michael Morris speaks at special Town Meeting earlier this year. After serving as interim for more than a year, Morris has expressed interest in the job on a permanent basis. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 07, 2017

AMHERST — After serving as interim superintendent for more than a year, Michael Morris could have the temporary tag removed this fall — a reversal from seven months ago when he opted not to apply for the position.

The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and Union 26 Committee, which jointly hire the superintendent, on Wednesday voted to consider naming Morris the permanent superintendent for the regional secondary schools, where Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury students are educated, and for the elementary schools in Amherst and Pelham.

Regional Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima said the vote was taken after he and fellow Amherst representative Anastasia Ordonez, chairwoman of the Union 26 Committee, learned over the summer that Morris would be interested in the permanent position.

“There a sense that he’s done a pretty good job and there’s a lot of confidence in him,” Nakajima said by phone Thursday. “If we decide to appoint Dr. Morris it will give us a lot of stability for the year.”

Nakajima said the decision would also be about the next three to five years and establishing a long-term vision for leadership.

“This is really about looking ahead at the future. We’re excited about the direction for the district,” Nakajima said.

Morris changes mind

Morris’ interest in the position marks a change from March, when he informed the committees, during what became a failed search process, that he would not put his name into the running, calling it an “extremely difficult” decision.

Previously the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Morris, 39, was named interim superintendent following the August 2016 departure of Maria Geryk, who left the position following a $309,238 buyout. That came after what was described as a period of tumult, with an erosion of trust between the committee and Geryk, and frayed relationships among members.

Nakajima said that Morris, in the interim role, successfully pivoted from this difficult time.

Morris said with more distance from the events of 2016, and a chance to reflect on his work and talk to his family about the implications of assuming the permanent post, the context had changed.

“It feels markedly different than applying for the job seven months ago,” Morris said.

Morris points to hires he has made, including Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent for Diversity, Equity and Human Resources, and positive momentum through a series of working groups focused on issues facing the schools.

“The team we have at the administrative and district level feels very different,” Morris said. “We’re now functioning in a way that is very exciting to me, and energizing.”

An Amherst resident, Morris has worked for 17 years as an elementary school teacher and principal and director of evaluation and assessment. He has a doctoral degree from Boston College.

The committees’ vote comes at a time when members are mulling whether to initiate a new search. The previous search was put on hold when Ray and Associates Executive Leadership Search of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was discovered to have violated provisions of state law in asking candidates about their criminal background.

Because the committees don’t want to rush into a new search, Nakajima said they will be setting aside sufficient time for residents in the four communities to offer feedback.

Ordonez said in a statement that many residents, teachers and staff had spoke to committee members to endorse Morris.

“He’s worked hard for our district and shown an ability to deftly manage district budgets, community needs and student achievement,” Ordonez said. “We’re looking forward to formally considering his candidacy.”

Nakajima said there are also pragmatic reasons for putting off a search, which could save $20,000 to $25,000.

The public can comment on the possibility of Morris becoming permanent superintendent at the next regional committee meeting Tuesday, and a joint meeting Sept. 26 will have 30 minutes set aside to discuss, with the possibility of a vote that evening or Oct. 10. The meetings all begin at 6:30 p.m in the high school library.

Morris will make a presentation at the Sept. 26 meeting that will respond, in part, to questions submitted by the public and members of the committees.

All feedback should be submitted orally or in writing by email to schoolcommittee@arps.org by Sept. 19.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.