Documents detail former superintendent Maria Geryk’s complaints against Amherst district

  • Documents related to the severance agreement with former superintendent Maria Geryk, left, were made public Wednesday. Former Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee Chairman Trevor Baptiste, right, is one of two members who Geryk claimed made disparaging remarks about her and released information from her evaluation. He denies both accusations. GAZETTE FILE PHOTOS

  • Amherst Pelham Superintendent Maria Geryk and School Committee Chairman Trevor Baptiste JERREY ROBERTS

  • Maria Geryk JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 08, 2016

AMHERST — A hostile work environment, contract violations related to her annual evaluation and challenges to her decision-making authority are among claims the attorney representing former Superintendent Maria Geryk brought to the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee in July as members began considering a severance deal.

Citing federal laws that would permit a lawsuit to be filed for violating Geryk’s constitutional rights, Michael J. Long, of Long & DiPietro LLP law firm of Hingham, sent a five-page demand letter to the committee’s attorney on July 20. The letter focused on the emotional distress Geryk experienced as two members allegedly criticized her for the way she handled a stay-away order issued to a Pelham parent, the lack of intervention by other members, and violations of the way her contract mandated that evaluations be done.

Amherst-Pelham executive session minutes about Maria Geryk settlement by Newspapers of New England on Scribd

School Committee Chairwoman Laura Kent released the demand letter Wednesday as an attachment to the official minutes from four executive sessions in July and August. These led to an Aug. 9 vote in which the committee approved a $309,238 payout to end Geryk’s tenure as superintendent. The seven-page agreement with Geryk was also made public for the first time.

Two members targeted

The demand letter, which followed a June 27 email that outlined claims and a cause of action, takes aim at two members for their actions, Trevor Baptiste, a Pelham representative and former regional committee chairman, and Amherst representative Vira Douangmany Cage, as well as other committee members for failing to rein in their colleagues.

“The blatant disregard for the evaluation process and the substance of the evaluation, when the contract establishes a duty to perform the evaluation in a certain way, has resulted in physical and emotional distress for Ms. Geryk,” wrote Long, an attorney representing her on behalf of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “That distress was caused by the actions of Mr. Baptiste, Ms. Douangmany Cage and the rest of the committee.”

Long goes on to accuse Douangmany Cage and Baptiste of making disparaging remarks about Geryk.

“The committee, particularly Mr. Baptiste and Ms. Vira Douangmany Cage, have continued an extensive discussion in the public domain and on various social media to attack the superintendent. Mr. Baptiste implies, and Ms. Douangmany Cage states, Ms. Geryk is a racist.

“In effect, it has been alleged that Ms. Geryk is a racist because she imposed reasonable behavioral rules and regulations of a minority parent. In fact, Ms. Geryk’s action was intended to protect school personnel and students from the disruptive presence of a parent who happens to be a minority.”

Baptiste disputes that he ever treated Geryk in anything but a neutral way and would never make belittling remarks toward her, in public or in private.

Likewise, Douangmany Cage said the contents of the demand letter are not accurate. “I object to that. I never called her a racist,” Douangmany Cage said.

Geryk left after six and a half years as superintendent. Her final contract was to have ended June 30, 2018. Her final payout of $253,725 was scheduled to be made Wednesday.

Long could not be reached for comment Wednesday. None of the documents released Wednesday includes a response to the demand letter by Thomas Colomb, of the law firm Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane of Quincy, who represents the school committee.

The entire regional committee also comes under fire from Long for not taking steps to “repudiate the speculation, innuendo and ‘specious hearsay’ ” allegedly spread by Douangmany Cage and Baptiste.

Though Kent voted in favor of the severance deal with Geryk, she said the demand letter was not the main factor in her decision.

“For me, it was about claims against the committee that had to do with the contract,” rather than the claims leveled against Douangmany Cage and Baptiste, which Kent said did not carry as much weight with her.

“For me, it was about removing emotion from both sides,” Kent said.

Stay-away order

The root of the claims against the School Committee appear to come from the issuing of a stay-away order to Pelham parent Aisha Hiza last spring.

Long wrote that “the superintendent is well within her legal authority to issue ‘no trespassing’ or ‘stay-away’ orders in connection with the operation of the schools,” citing a 2008 case in which the court sided with the Hull schools against a resident who was restricted temporarily from school property.

A portion of Geryk’s claim centers on the April 12 regional school committee meeting, at which Baptiste was still chairman and permitted the reading of a petition by Hiza’s former Amherst Regional High School classmates calling for the order to be lifted.

Baptiste told the petitioners that the regional committee could not respond, since Pelham matters were not under its purview, and that any evaluation of Geryk should be done in executive session. “The process of us evaluating our chief executive can’t be playing out in public,” Baptiste said at the time.

Baptiste said he voted Tuesday against the release of executive session minutes, observing that the demand letter is not essential for the public to understand how the decision was reached to come to a severance deal with Geryk.

“To me, this letter is the part that is not necessary,” Baptiste said, adding that it was designed to impugn the integrity of committee members who raised questions about her performance.

“My rationale is that it’s all unsubstantiated lies, literally a lawyer trying to throw a monkey wrench in a system we control,” Baptiste said.

Similarly, Douangmany Cage contends that her role in the severance deal was only to vote the amount the committee should pay Geryk, rather than whether should they should agree to let her go, or challenge her to file a lawsuit.

The demand letter’s only purpose, she said, was to portray her and Baptiste in a bad light.

“We were being scapegoated as fall guys for the departure of the superintendent,” Douangmany Cage said.

Evaluations cited

Long’s memo also cites non-compliant evaluations, which violate Department of Elementary and Secondary Education guidelines and the language of Geryk’s contract, and that “the gist of the evaluations done by Mr. Baptiste and Ms. Vira Douangmany Cage, whch I have reviewed, appeared to have been transmitted into the public domain prior to finalization.”

But Douangmany Cage said she could not release her evaluation, because once she completed it online, it was accessible only to the chairmen of the regional, Pelham and Union 26 committees, and likely Geryk.

“Obviously she was privy to them because she objected to them,” Douangmany Cage said.

Baptiste had the same issue with his evaluation. “I’ve never seen or known of it being released publicly,” Baptiste said.

While Kent said she was aware that not all evaluations initially had been done following the correct procedure, she attempted to resolve this matter before compiling them into a summary review. The evaluations by individual members were only released publicly after Geryk’s departure in August.

Former committee member Sarah Dolven, a lawyer from Leverett, said the risk of Geryk’s claims was a lawsuit that, regardless of who prevailed, would mean a long and drawn out process, calling it “the definition of being between a rock and a hard place.”

“Does this community want two to three years of protracted litigation, or do they want to find a new dynamic leader who can answer questions the committee has and fill in the deficiencies people saw in the former superintendent?” Dolven said.

But while Dolven, who last month resigned her position on the regional committee, said she values different viewpoints, she was concerned that there were committee members not acting properly.

Douangmany Cage said she continues to believe that the committee made the wrong decision. “It was one of those things where we needed to defend the public, and we didn’t, we capitulated,” she said.

The seven-page separation agreement with Geryk includes both a nonadmission clause, in which the “agreement does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing or liability by any party as to any subject or matter” and a non-disparagement clause governing school committee members and the former superintendent, stating that “they will not make, or induce others to make on their behalf, any oral or written statements which are disparaging of the other.”

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