PVPA fires head of school in wake of drug charges

  • Former Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School Principal George Simpson waits for the start of a special meeting with the school's board of trustees, Monday at the school. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School Principal George Simpson, left, enters a room for a special meeting with the school's board of trustees, Monday at the school. His attorney, David Perry, is with him. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Melinda Winter, far left, who is the president of the board of trustees for Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School, speaks during a special meeting with the school's former principal, George Simpson, far right, Monday at the school. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Former head of the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School George Simpson, right, with his attorney, David Perry, heads into a closed-door meeting with the school’s trustees Monday at the school in South Hadley. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS


Published: 2/26/2018 11:33:17 PM

SOUTH HADLEY — The Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School is looking for a new director after trustees voted Monday to fire head of school George Simpson.

The board’s decision comes a month after Reading police arrested Simpson on charges of heroin and methamphetamine possession. Simpson has pleaded not guilty to those charges.

“It’s unfortunate that we are here, and that it has come to this point,” board president Melinda Winter said after the vote. “But it was in the best interest of our community to terminate our relationship with Mr. Simpson.”

Simpson, 45, and his lawyer, David Perry, were present at the board meeting, but declined to comment to the press.

Simpson had initially indicated to the board and the Gazette that he wanted his meeting with the board to be open to the public. But on Monday he reversed course and the meeting was held in executive session, as is usually the case with such personnel matters.

The board emerged from the closed-door session after approximately 90 minutes and voted to accept the findings of a task force, terminate Simpson’s employment, effective immediately, and bar him from school property and functions.

As part of the board’s decision, the school will pay for Simpson’s health insurance for up to six months, provided he doesn’t have any other way of receiving those benefits.

“It’s a humanitarian gesture,” board member Jim Barnhill said during Monday’s meeting.

“While there were causes for the termination … we also are a community that values compassion and respect for other people, and we felt it was very important that our community provide something for Mr. Simpson, especially in regards to something like health benefits, which can be incredibly expensive,” Winter told the Gazette.

Reading police pulled over Simpson and a passenger on the night of Jan. 26 after reportedly seeing Simpson’s car driving erratically, according to court documents. Police learned Simpson had an active arrest warrant out of Eastern Hampshire District Court in Belchertown for operating a motor vehicle with a restricted license, and subsequently arrested him.

While searching Simpson, police allegedly found three baggies of methamphetamine and hypodermic needles, including one loaded with a substance police believed to be heroin, according to court documents. Police also allegedly found other drug paraphernalia in the car.

Winter said those charges were one factor among several that led the board to terminate his employment with the school, though she did not elaborate on what those other issues were.

“There have been ongoing issues with Mr. Simpson,” she said. “The level of performance was just not where it needed to be in several aspects.”

Simpson originally submitted his resignation as head of PVPA on Feb. 9, but the board declined to accept it because it would have required the school to keep him in his job and pay him through June 30. Instead, he was placed on paid leave while the task force was convened to look into the allegations and his possible departure.

Simpson assumed his role as head of PVPA on July 3, 2017. He was one of 27 applicants, three of whom were brought in for in-person interviews.

“George was a very strong candidate, he was a unanimous decision,” Winter said after the board meeting. “I do not believe there was any way for us to see that this was coming.”

The board voted to form a committee that will post a job opening and hire an interim executive director for the remainder of this academic year. Winter said one option the board may look into is to use a search firm when looking for a new permanent school leader — something the board didn’t do in its search for Simpson.

Brent Nielsen, the school’s director of student services, has stepped into the leadership role for now.

Going forward, Winter said the school will not be in a rush to hire a new head of school. At the board’s March 13 meeting, she said, trustees will discuss a new leadership plan.

“It’s a good time to take a look at our leadership structure and to potentially make some changes if we want to,” Winter said.

“Moving forward, I feel like we are in a good position to find a path forward in a positive way that will ensure PVPA’s continued success,” Winter said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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