Amherst-Pelham school committee seeks to heal rifts

  • Amherst School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage, right, speaks Tuesday beside Anastasia Ordonez after the committee met in an executive session Aug. 9 to discuss the terms of departure for School Superintendent Maria Geryk at Amherst Regional High School.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

AMHERST — Working to chart a path forward, the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee held a professional development workshop Tuesday following the tumultuous departure of former superintendent Maria Geryk.

The committee met with Dorothy Presser, a field director for the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, for its annual retreat. The three-hour workshop focused on brainstorming ways the committee can best function to meet its goal of supporting student learning while enjoying a productive, collaborative working relationship with the superintendent.

Topics included agenda setting, seating arrangements and individual members’ rights to dissent.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Morris, who was at the meeting, has been acting superintendent since Geryk left her post last month. Geryk and the regional and Union 26 school committees settled on a $309,238 severance deal, reached after more than a dozen hours of closed-door meetings this summer.

In a demand letter signed by her lawyer, Geryk took aim at two committee members, Trevor Baptiste and Vira Douangmany Cage, accusing them of “blatant disregard” for the annual evaluation the committee completes for the superintendent.

During her time as superintendent, Geryk was criticized for not being able to manage conflict. She has been at the center of several public controversies, including a stay-away order issued against Pelham parent Aisha Hiza in March, the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination case that led to a $180,000 settlement with high school teacher Carolyn Gardner in July 2015, and anti-bullying presentations by Calvin Terrell in fall 2014.

Discussion at Tuesday’s meeting focused on how the committee and superintendent can form a productive working relationship. Topics ranged from better defining the superintendent evaluation process to the seating arrangement of members at meetings to ensuring the First Amendment rights of dissenting members are not squashed.

Presser said that as the superintendent’s employer, the School Committee must look to the evaluations as a way to ensure that pre-set annual and long-term goals are being met by the school’s chief administrator. It’s important those goals are coupled with a clear vision for a desired outcome that goes beyond a checklist of tasks completed, she said.

Presser said it’s important to nurture the relationship of the committee and superintendent, because “when there’s conflict, there’s no progress.” Morris agreed and said that’s true of any supervisory relationship.

The members paired off to brainstorm problems that they think might be addressed by new policies or protocols. Such rules will be developed over time with the help of Presser and should aim to help the body function productively.

Baptiste said Geryk’s lawyer had asserted that a certain agenda item in relation to her evaluation was not allowed, so Geryk took it off the agenda. He asked whether the members think there should be a rule against such “vetoes.”

Emily Marriott said such a rule “pre-supposes a problem,” that the future superintendent will meddle with the committee’s agenda. The members ought to strive for a productive working relationship that would encourage communication about potential problems, she said.

“That scenario is a symptom of a relationship that was already problematic,” she said.

The members largely agreed that there should be a protocol regarding how and when the agenda would be set. Stephen Sullivan and Anastasia Ordonez both said they believe there should be time during meetings for members to offer suggestions for future topics.

Other questions were raised about which school committees and which members of those committees are allowed to participate in the superintendent’s evaluation. Presser said she would research the topic.

Phoebe Hazzard suggested that the members sit in a more circular orientation, rather than directly facing the audience, to encourage more personal discussion. Several members agreed with her.

Ordonez suggested limiting the speaking time of members to several minutes and using a timer like the one used at Town Meeting. Chairwoman Laura Kent said she already bought a timer that uses red, yellow and green lights to signal speaking time.

Katherine Appy and Hazzard raised questions about Douangmany Cage’s appearance on an Amherst Media program speaking about why she voted against a measure that paved the way for the Wildwood School renovation project that would create two schools in one building housing Grades 2 through 6.

Hazzard questioned whether this constituted active campaigning against the will of the school district. “It feels very destructive to me to the district’s mission,” she said.

“I feel like I’m representing families in our district who are against that, and teachers who said they don’t think it’s a good idea,” Douangmany Cage said. “I’m doing my job.”

Baptiste said that Douangmany Cage was not campaigning against the committee’s decisions because it is the Select Board that raises a Proposition 2½ override referendum that would fund the school.

Appy noted that School Committee members only have power collectively when they meet as a body. Thus Douangmany Cage’s vote cannot stand on its own. She should represent the School Committee’s majority vote, Appy said.

Presser said committee members never lose their free speech rights and ability to voice dissent, but ought also represent official positions when speaking in the community.

Chris Lindahl can be reached at clindahl@gazettenet.com.