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Parents optimistic as school year starts; Geryk payout a concern for some

  • Alex Lagrant, 9, right, and his sister Eva Lagrant, left, hula hoop during the First Day Celebration event Tuesday at the Amherst Commons. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker

  • Nate Beigel, 7, pulls Caleb Morse, 7, with a hula hoop during the First Day Celebration, Tuesday, on the Amherst Common. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker

  • Sabir Douglas, 9, competes in an obstacle course during the First Day Celebration event Tuesday, August, 30, at the Amherst Commons. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker—Andrew J. Whitaker/Gazette Staff

  • Officer Nicolas Chandler gives a police sticker to Emaline Seidner Coler, 3, during Amherst schools’ First Day Celebration, Tuesday, on the Amherst Common. Gazette Staff/Andrew WhitakeR

  • Sam the Minuteman, the University of Massachusetts Amherst mascot, walks around and claps during the First Day Celebration event Tuesday at the Amherst Commons. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker

  • Odin Monesson-Olson, 3, pretends to drive the school bus with Amherst bus driver Rich Fuhrman watches from the window during the First Day Celebration event Tuesday, August, 30, at the Amherst Commons. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker—Andrew J. Whitaker/Gazette Staff

  • Hundreds gather for the First Day Celebration event Tuesday, August, 30, at the Amherst Commons. Gazette Staff/Andrew Whitaker—Andrew J. Whitaker/Gazette Staff



@cmlindahl
Friday, September 02, 2016

AMHERST — As families gathered on the Town Common Tuesday to celebrate the start of the new school year, parents who spoke about the recent departure of Amherst-Pelham Regional School District Superintendent Maria Geryk were hesitant to pass judgment about her controversial and expensive exit, saying more information is needed.

Under a severance agreement approved by the regional and Union 26 school committees earlier this month, Geryk will receive a $309,238 payout over two years. She was allowed to leave her position about two years before her contract was up.

The settlement came after hours of closed-door meetings, pushback from three committee members and a complaint filed with the state seeking to halt the payout.

Some parents interviewed at the First Day Celebration said questions still remain about the details of Geryk’s departure.

“I didn’t see it coming,” Peggy Chien said. “I don’t know if she wanted to go, or if there was a push or some pressure the other way around … I don’t feel like I have enough of the background to pass any judgment.”

Chien, of Amherst, whose daughter attends Wildwood Elementary School, said regardless of what happened with Geryk, it is likely a complicated situation.

Lawrence Ciccarelli, who is married to Chien, said he has questions about the behind-the-scenes handling of controversies during Geryk’s tenure.

Controversies

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.

“It would be interesting to know more about what the School Committee did or didn’t do,” Ciccarelli said. “I’m not ready to place any blame.”

Three school board members, Stephen Sullivan, Trevor Baptiste and Vira Douangmany Cage, voted against the agreement. Douangmany Cage has since filed a consumer complaint with the state attorney general’s office seeking to halt the payout.

Minutes from the executive sessions indicate extensive conversation among members about working in the best interest of the district, and avoiding a costly lawsuit by Geryk, who allegedly had threatened legal action against the committee and its members.

While Geryk initially asked for a severance package of $474,000, parent Jochen Rau questioned whether the final $309,238 settlement was a good deal.

“I’m shocked at the amount of money,” said Rau, who has four children at the elementary and middle schools.

As a former teacher, Rau said he understands the money could go a long way for teacher training or other programs. He said many of his neighbors believe that the payout was a quick way to deal with a potential problem in Geryk.

School Finance Director Sean Mangano said the fiscal year 2017 payment to Geryk, which will total $295,238, will be covered by budget savings, leaving the director of equity and professional development position unfilled and various other contingencies. No money used for education of students will go toward the settlement.

After Geryk’s departure, Assistant Superintendent Michael Morris was named the district’s acting superintendent.

Despite questions about the school’s former top leader, many parents expressed strong confidence in the system’s other educators.

“I’m amazed by the Wildwood School,” Rau said. Principal Nick Yaffe “is just great. He knows every student — that gives them the sense that they belong.”

As Julianne Applegate readied to move to the Valley, she said she had her eye on Amherst schools — especially Wildwood. In fact, superb schools were a “non-negotiable” in making a decision about where to live.

Her son needs some extra help in school that requires a second teacher to be in the classroom. Out of all the moves that she and her professor husband have made, she said the one to Amherst was the easiest.

“They didn’t miss a beat,” Applegate said. “It has been just a seamless transition.”

Luke Healey, who has lived in Amherst for about six years, will send his daughter to school for the first time when she starts kindergarten at Fort River Elementary School. Despite the uncertainty surrounding top school leadership, Healey said he is confident that his daughter will get a great education.

“It’s a little unsettling that the superintendent is leaving,” Healey said. “I think there’s enough people in the community that care about the school system to find a solution.”