Two of 4 finalists for Northampton superintendent field questions; next two to meet with committee on Thursday

  • Portia Bonner, a candidate for superintendent, speaks in front of the Northampton School Committee during a public interview held on Monday night. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

  • Tara Tiller, a candidate for superintendent, speaks in front of the Northampton School Committee during a public interview held on Monday night. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Published: 3/21/2023 3:10:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Two of four finalists to be the next superintendent of Northampton Public Schools described how they approach school bullying, how they craft school budgets and how they ensure equity at schools in interviews before the School Committee Monday night.

The interviews focused on the out-of-state candidates for the top school position: Portia Bonner, who most recently was interim superintendent of the Bozrah Public School District in Bozrah, Connecticut, and Tara Tiller, the chief operations and financial officer of the Cheatham County School District in Tennessee.

The committee is scheduled to interview the remaining two candidates in a similar format on Thursday night.

Bonner and Tiller each fielded 18 questions from the committee in separate 90-minute sessions on Monday.

Bonner, whose has also been superintendent in the Connecticut school districts of East Haven and Hamden, said she was attracted to the position due to the similarity of Northampton to the districts she’s served in the past.

“You are starting to change demographically, so I would be glad to help with that transition,” she said. “It’s a place where I feel that I can grow and thrive and contribute to.”

She spoke about her time while at the Hamden School District, where she served as acting superintendent from 2005 to 2008. Hamden, a suburb of New Haven, included a demographic shift during that time, Bonner said, with children of Yale academics going to school together with children who belonged to minority groups or lower socioeconomic status. She said she implemented anti-bias and anti-racist training and curriculum during this time, long before other districts across the nation did so.

“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 said. “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?”

Bonner has worked in education since 1991. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and sociology from Skidmore College, a master’s in biology from Purdue University and a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from the University of Connecticut.

Tiller, a former math teacher who studied financial services while an undergraduate, played upon her strengths as someone who is capable of creating an efficient and cost-effective budget for the district that also benefits teachers.

“When I put together a budget for the board of education, the one thing I always fight for is teacher raises,” she said, adding that she has successfully procured raises for teachers in her district since 2017. “Our financial team has been able to execute an efficient budget for the last five years, and we are in very good standing financially.”

Tiller said she was drawn to Northampton due to its proximity to Orange County, New York, where she has family, and the city’s progressive culture.

“I want to be stretched by the diversity, both in the LGBTQ community, as well as the diversity of the students and with the community as a whole,” she said.

Tiller has spent most of her career in Tennessee, having worked in the Cheatham County district since 2013 and was formerly a principal in the Dickson County school district. She holds a master’s and doctorate of education from Tennessee State University and Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, respectively.

Bullying was another issue each candidate was asked to address. The school district and the city is currently facing a lawsuit after a student at the school committed suicide in 2020, with the parents alleging the school did not take proper steps to protect her from bullying.

Bonner said she would emphasize an importance on positive slogans that would celebrate the differences of the students, and a progressive approach to dealing with offenders.

“If you have the opportunity where you see the perpetrators who have done this, there is a restorative practice that you bring them in and really kind of have a conversation about what they have done,” she said. “Usually this is facilitated by someone who’s diversity, equity, inclusive-trained and really take them to the point of, do you understand how you’ve affected others, not just the victim of the person you’re making the slur against, but you’re also affecting others who have to visually see that and take that in.”

Tiller said her way to address the issue would be to empower students to advocate for themselves in the school community, and encourage a “see something, say something” philosophy.

“If students don’t know how to do math, we teach them how to do math. But if students don’t know how to behave correctly, we provide consequences. That just doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “We need to teach students how to behave.”

The committee will hold a second hearing of public interviews on Thursday with the other two candidates for the superintendent position, both who serve districts in western Massachusetts: Jonathan Bruno, director of learning and teaching in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District in Stockbridge and Marisa Mendosa, deputy superintendent of the Pittsfield Public Schools.

The school committee is expected to pick its next superintendent on Monday, according to committee vice chair Gwen Agna.

The new superintendent will take over for Jannell Pearson-Campbell, who has been serving as interim superintendent since the departure of John Provost, who left last summer to serve as superintendent of the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at

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