Amherst takes steps on administrator licenses, hiring

  • Interim Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris speaks Monday during a special Amherst Town Meeting in January 2017.

  • Michael Morris, left, shakes hands with Eric Nakajima after Morris was chosen to serve as the Amherst school superintendent in October at Amherst Regional High School.

Published: 6/14/2018 12:06:42 AM

AMHERST — Licensure and hiring practices continue to face scrutiny in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, where district leaders this week announced updates on both of those fronts.

At a Regional School Committee meeting Tuesday, district officials contemplated potential changes to leadership structure at the elementary schools, announced that all administrators will be licensed for the coming year and presented updates to the district’s hiring process.

Those announcements come after public outcry over revelations that some principals were lacking licenses or waivers — a topic current school leaders say they’ve been addressing since last year — and accusations of discriminatory practices in the search for a new middle school principal. Christine Harmon, a member of the middle school principal search committee, went public with accusations of discrimination after Superintendent Michael Morris passed over two licensed candidates of color to reappoint the middle school’s unlicensed interim principal.

Harmon also lodged a complaint with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE, which conducted an audit that found longtime principals in the district to have been working with expired licenses. Morris said the district plans to respond to questions from DESE later this week.

For some Amherst residents of color, the licensure debacle and circumstances surrounding the middle school principal search fit into what they say has been a long-standing pattern in the district of ignoring their concerns. One such perspective came from Gaylord Saulsberry, who  spent more than two decades as an  Amherst Regional High School principal and teacher.

“This story, and ones that have preceded it, speak to the failure of the system to take seriously the interests of underrepresented groups within the system’s educational population,” Saulsberry wrote. “Christine Harmon’s public comments to the regional school committee were accurate, relevant and historically true. The hiring process in the system has been steeped in the ‘old boy,’ and more recently, ‘old girl,’ system of privilege.”

Former School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage said she found some of the public comments at Regional School Committee meetings to be dismissive of the experiences of people of color who have come before a public body to voice their concerns.

“Why are we resistant to holding a mirror to ourselves?” Douangmany Cage said, praising comments Harmon made on Tuesday about the fragility of white residents when it comes to talking about race. “Why are we resistant to hearing complaints from people who are driven by a desire to improve the district, to make it work for every student, to make it responsive to every family?”

That was a sentiment shared by Sonji Johnson-Anderson during Tuesday’s public comment period.

“If people of color are coming to you and saying to you that we are disproportionately affected by policies and practices in the district, please hear us,” she said.

Morris acknowledged in an interview that the district has made some errors.

“We have not always maintained a full roster of administrators who had full administrative licensure,” Morris said.

He added that Doreen Cunningham — assistant superintendent of diversity, equity and human resources — had proactively identified licensure as an issue when she was hired last summer, and that the district had been working on it since. “It’s not something that has been reactive.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Cunningham again took partial responsibility for errors in filing for some license waivers, which DESE grants usually only when there is an unsuccessful search for a qualified, licensed candidate.

Due to a clerical error, Cunningham said, she received and then passed on to DESE erroneous information about the number of candidates who had applied for a job.

“As mentioned, it was just my error,” she said. Morris said the training Cunningham received was partly to blame.

“I understand the image it gave off,” Morris said of the fact that the district applied for four administrative license waivers in the 2017-18 school year, saying that no licensed candidates had applied for those jobs. “There was no hijinks or subversive activities around that, it was truly a clerical error that was made.”

A letter from software maker SchoolSpring to district leaders released Tuesday confirmed that such a human error is possible, and offers additional software training to the district.

Not common

It’s unclear to what extent licensure lapses like the ones seen in Amherst are a common occurrence in other commonwealth schools.

A Gazette review of DESE records for principal licensure in nearby districts appears to show a handful of other principals having let licensure lapse as well. But Stephen Hemman, who spent nearly a decade as a superintendent in the state and currently serves as the assistant director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, said that knowing licensure regulations is a standard part of the job.

“It’s not common,” he said of employing unlicensed or unwaivered administrators. “When I was going to hire a principal, I always knew they had to have their license.”

Jacqueline Reis, a DESE spokeswoman, said that when an administrator’s professional license expires, they automatically get an email reminder to renew. DESE, however, doesn’t keep data on how common it is for administrators to let their license lapse.

Brian Devine, director of the state Office of Educator Licensure, did not respond directly to a written question on whether Amherst was unusual in having such a high number of administrators working without licenses or on waivers.

“When licensure issues are called to our attention, we review those issues and work with the district to ensure they are in compliance,” Devine said, noting that there are no penalties for districts employing administrators without proper licensure or waivers.

Devine said that individuals are responsible for obtaining, maintaining or renewing their appropriate licenses, and that the school district is responsible for making sure all necessary staff have a valid license or waiver.

To ensure that the district remains in compliance in the future, Cunningham said that she approached the district’s information systems department about getting a licensure-status question included on yearly reporting educators already do.

Administrative shifts

In the wake of the revelations about licensure in the district, six principals aren’t currently slated to return to administrative roles for the coming year: Ericka Alschuler, Patti Bode, Yaldira Brown, Sharri Conklin, Alicia Lopez and David Ranen.

Morris said that for the coming year, all principals are now licensed, including high school Principal Mark Jackson and Wildwood Elementary School Principal Nicholas Yaffe. Morris added that only licensed candidates would be considered for open positions such as interim middle school principal.

But Morris has yet to decide what leadership structure will actually look like at the elementary school level, where school leaders are mulling the possibility of doing away with assistant principal roles entirely.

“There’s no state directive or mandate to do so,” Morris said of having assistant principal roles, pointing to districts that don’t have those positions, like Northampton, and others like South Hadley that do. “It’s a local decision made by local districts.”

Morris said Tuesday that whatever decision is made will be only with the interests of students and families in mind, and Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima made an effort to disprove any suspicion that a leadership reorganization would be a way to circumvent DESE regulations. Crocker Farm Elementary School Principal Derek Shea, however, spoke out against the idea of doing away with assistant principals at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We can’t abolish the leadership position that the assistant principal does,” Shea said. “We need that person. It’s imperative.”

Hiring practices

Members of a search process review committee also presented updates to the district’s hiring practices.

Among the changes in practices will be the formation of standing committees at each school — a pool of potential search-committee members from the schools and community who all receive training on issues like implicit bias. From those committees, whose membership will be made public at the beginning of every school year, members will be pulled when a search is necessary.

The superintendent will also be involved earlier in the search process to give his opinion, and if the superintendent rejects all finalists the search committee can reconvene to discuss afterward.

Ahead of Tuesday’s Regional School Committee meeting, Nakajima said he has confidence in Morris’ and Cunningham’s handling of the situation, noting that the two are fairly new in their roles. He said he didn’t see any evidence of direct bias in Morris’ actions, and that no formal complaint or evidence had been filed with the School Committee on that point.

Going forward, he said, the  School Committee hop es to keep talking about licensure.

“Undoubtedly, members of the public, some of them, don’t feel like we’ve made enough progress in the past year,”  Nakajima said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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