Some Amherst school board members asked state for help

  • Five members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee in August wrote to the commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education seeking help with what they described as dysfunction on the board. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 21, 2016

AMHERST — Claiming dysfunction on the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and disarray in the school district jeopardizing the educational work of the public schools, five members of the board last month sought assistance from a state agency to help solve the problems.

Signed by Laura Kent, Katherine Appy, Sarah Dolven, Anastasia Ordonez and Phoebe Hazzard, the Aug. 22 letter was sent to Mitchell D. Chester, commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, less than two weeks after the committee agreed to a more than $309,000 settlement with former Superintendent Maria Geryk. She parted ways after her attorney claimed Geryk endured a hostile work environment caused by school committee members — and that members violated terms of her contract.

Amherst-Pelham School Committee Letter to state education commissioner by Newspapers of New England on Scribd

In the letter to Chester, the members wrote, “Certain members have incited members of the public so that meetings of the school committee have deteriorated to shouting matches where certain people are threatened because of their race. The work of the school committee cannot move forward in this environment, and with the recent forced resignation of the superintendent, the school district is stagnating.”

Appy said the letter was not an official action of the school committee, but that those who wrote and then signed it wanted to find a way to bring harmony and cooperation to the committee.

“This was the action of community members and public servants who were trying to support our students, teachers and staff by working to have a functional school committee,” Appy said. “The signers of the letter were in a situation where we felt as though the work of the regional school committee was not able to move forward.”

Hazzard, an Amherst representative, said in an email that she serves to create exceptional learning environments for children, and understands that controversy and disagreement are an integral part of public discourse.

But Hazzard said the current process has moved far beyond healthy disagreement into bullying, abuse, distrust and disregard for rules and laws.

“Working in this negative climate has been extremely difficult for me personally,” Hazzard said. “More importantly, it severely compromises the ability of the committee to work effectively and attract and retain competent members and district administrators. This puts our school district at significant risk.”

“Under the circumstances, I believe that seeking help from outside resources is our only option,” Hazzard added.

Ordonez, who also represents Amherst, said help is needed to fix chronic problems with the committee that are preventing it from functioning as a policy-making body in support of the schools.

“Confidential information has been repeatedly leaked, meetings pulled wildly off-track, public comments made that threaten our employer and legal standing, and demands made to violate the open meeting laws of the commonwealth,” Ordonez said.

State has no role

Helene Bettencourt, chief of staff for the state department informed Kent, who was chairwoman of the regional committee until her resignation last week (see related story, page A1), in an Aug. 31 response that while the “circumstances described in your letter certainly appear to be, at best, counterproductive,” the department “has no statutory or regulatory role in overseeing locally elected school committees or school committee members.”

Education department response to Amherst-Pelham Committee by Newspapers of New England on Scribd

Instead, Bettencourt suggested members reach out to the Massachusetts Association of School Committees for assistance.

In fact, a school committee retreat last week brought in a field director from the state association. This retreat was designed to move the committee and the district forward, Appy said.

Even though roles and responsibilities were discussed, and best practices were outlined, Hazzard said difficulties remain after the retreat.

“With the current behaviors within the committee, it is very difficult to foster trust and respect, making it challenging to proceed with the work with which we are tasked: serving our students,” Hazzard said.

Ordonez said she hopes the expert counsel of the state association can help get the committee “back on track, so we can begin again the business of policy-making, budget tracking and managing our superintendent.”

‘Worst’ climate

The letter was also sent to state Rep. Ellen Story and Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, both Democrats from Amherst.

Story said she did not respond, and that the letter was not a surprise as she has been hearing from constituents that the school committee has a disagreeable atmosphere.

“I am glad that this is coming to light,” said Story, herself a former member of the school committee. “The school committee climate is the worst since I moved here in 1972.”

Story said she understands that the retreat ended with more shouting and disagreement, which is not what should have happened.

“Hopefully, when you are elected your goal is to work toward benefiting the schools, not to wreak havoc as a member of the School Committee,” Story said.

Some members left out

Until the letter was released on Sept. 14, members Vira Douangmany Cage of Amherst, and Emily Marriott and Trevor Baptiste, both of Pelham, said they were unaware of its existence, and were not given the opportunity to review or sign it.

“I was not a part of any of this,” Douangmany Cage said.

“This was last month,” said Baptiste, reached at his office Sept. 15. “Why am I just hearing about it now?”

Marriott confirmed she was not informed such a letter was written or sent, but said she would not otherwise comment.

The other member who did not sign the letter, Stephen Sullivan of Shutesbury, could not be reached by phone or email.

Sullivan, Douangmany Cage and Baptiste voted against the payout for Geryk.

Douangmany Cage said she believes because the letter was not the topic of a school committee agenda, it is a clear violation of the state’s Open Meeting Law.

“I don’t think it was intended for public knowledge that this was submitted to DESE,” Douangmany Cage said.

The letter makes accusations against members of the community and two school committee members, not identified by name, stating that they harassed Geryk and other administrators.

“This has included, but is not limited to, threats, defamation, bullying, and breaches of contractual rights,” and elaborates on an assortment of other behaviors, including name-calling, leaking documents, posting negative and false characterizations of members and staff on social media. “The level of vitriol by these two members has brought deep emotional distress to all of us who are signing this letter.”

Douangmany Cage said the contents of the letter show that some members put social relationships before the work of the committee, and that “double dealing” was going on during the lengthy closed-door discussions that led to the settlement with Geryk.

“I need to defend the public and stand up for the public always,” Douangmany Cage said. “Friendships clouded some people’s ability to defend the public trust.”

In fact, she said Appy has already been cited by the state attorney general’s office for an Open Meeting Law violation last year when Appy sent a letter related to whether the committee should negotiate with the NAACP, which constituted deliberation outside of a meeting. In 2014, Douangmany said, a majority of the committee reversed a reprimand that Appy and the chairs of the regional and Union 26 made against then member Amilcar Shabazz

“This is very much her modus operandi,” Douangmany Cage said.

Baptiste said because the letter was sent nearly a month ago, and the committee has since held a retreat designed to heal rifts and encourage collaboration, he would not respond to any complaints outlined in the letter. But he said everyone on the committee is an adult and that a state department has no authority over these relationships.

Douangmany Cage said she felt compelled to respond, as there are serious charges being leveled, and therefore the letter should have identified individuals by name and been specific, rather than making generalizations “not necessarily based on a foundation of truth and accuracy.”

She said she will continue to speak out when she sees problems in the schools.

“These things are part and parcel of doing our work,” Douangmany Cage aaid. “We’re not a booster club, we’re not a PGO charged with baking cookies and doing fundraisers.”

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