Northampton School Committee selects Portia Bonner to become the district’s next superintendent

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2023 10:31 AM

NORTHAMPTON — An educator with more than 30 years of experience, including four previous stints leading school districts, has been selected as the new superintendent for Northampton Public Schools.

The School Committee voted 9-1 Monday to offer the job to Portia Bonner after a monthslong search.

Bonner possesses decades of experience in the education field, having worked in school districts since the early 1990s. Most recently, she served as an interim superintendent in Bozrah, Connecticut. She’s also served as superintendent in the Connecticut towns of Hamden and East Haven, as well as in the Massachusetts city of New Bedford.

“I am honored and extremely excited to serve the Northampton community,” said Bonner in a statement to the Gazette. “I look forward to being a part of Northampton Public Schools.”

If contract negotiations are successful, Bonner is set to become the first African American to serve as permanent superintendent for the Northampton Public School district. Jannell Pearson-Campbell, the current interim superintendent, is also African American.

Bonner beat out three other candidates for the committee’s top pick: Jonathan Bruno, director of learning and teaching in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District in Stockbridge; Marisa Mendosa, deputy superintendent of the Pittsfield Public Schools; and Tara Tiller, the chief operations and financial officer of the Cheatham County School District in Tennessee.

School Committee members assessed the candidates using a rubric of 17 different categories that formed the basis for questions used during the interview process. Categories on the rubric included communication, budgeting and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices.

“We also conducted site visits with each candidate, and we used our rubric to develop interview questions,” said School Committee member Dina Levi during a meeting held on Monday to select the preferred candidate. “So there are some areas of our rubric that ask candidate questions, and some areas that we dug much deeper into those same areas in asking questions to members of the community of each candidate.”

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During her interview process, Bonner spoke of her experiences working in diverse school districts, and introducing anti-bias and anti-racist training programs long before current national conversations on race started to take place.

“What’s important is that once you are doing something new with initiatives, that you do it slowly, you incorporate the teachers in some of the decision making, and then you pilot it to see if it works,” she told the committee during a publicly-held interview. “But before you choose anything, what you need to look at is, is it going to meet the needs of your vision and the goals of your district?”

Prior to voting on a candidate, School Committee members held a straw poll on the four candidates, with each committee member ranking their top two choices. Bonner placed an easy first, with seven members ranking her number one and three placing her at number two. Tiller placed second in the straw poll, with two members ranking her number one and three members ranking her number two.

“I just really appreciated the sense of excitement I got from her [Bonner] when I talked to her about our district,” said Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, who chairs the School Committee. “She just had all the strengths where we really, really need it.”

The district is coming out of a period of turbulence that saw the departure of several principals, including Northampton High School principal Lori Vaillaincourt, who resigned after questions arose regarding her commitment to student equity.

Additionally, a lawsuit is currently underway regarding the suicide of a student at the high school several years ago due to bullying.

For School Committee member Holly Ghazey, Bonner was her “one and one” candidate.

“I’m looking for someone who can help heal our community,” Ghazey said. “I think she can work with all of our constituents and I think she’s a very community-minded person.”

The committee voted 9-1 to select Bonner as its candidate. Michael Stein was the lone dissenter among the committee, saying he could not decide between Tiller and Bonner.

“We have a lot of budgetary issues, and I wonder how valuable she could be to us in righting the ship,” said Stein about Tiller, who showcased her experience working with school budgets in her interview.

Once Bonner was selected as a candidate, a second vote was held to authorize the mayor to enter into negotiations for a contract. That vote passed unanimously.

Bonner holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and sociology from Skidmore College, a master’s of science in biology from Purdue University, and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Connecticut.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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