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Amherst school chief gets good marks on his annual evaluation

  • Amherst School Superintendent Michael Morris. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO



@dustyc123
Thursday, July 05, 2018

AMHERST — The Amherst School Committee, Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and Pelham School Committee have all given Superintendent Michael Morris positive evaluations, though with some calling for an improvement in communication.

The evaluations, which were approved in the past two weeks, reflect the committees’ assessments of Morris’ work over the 2017-2018 school year. Superintendent hiring and evaluation are some of a school committee’s chief mandates, with evaluations conducted on a yearly basis.

Those evaluations assess the progress made on specific goals the superintendent has set at the beginning of the year, and are backed by both evidence the superintendent submits and anecdotal information from community members.

The five goals Morris set for the elementary-school level were: developing and implementing a communication plan for addressing feedback from the school community, finalizing an overhaul of homework guidelines at the elementary level, implementing a social justice-focused professional development session, managing ongoing budget challenges and developing a path addressing problems identified by five enrollment working groups.

At the Regional School Committee level, the goals of a communications plan, social justice professional development and budget management were the same. The other two goals were beginning a strategic planning process and administering a school climate survey as a baseline for annual assessments.

Overall, the committee members’ evaluations of those goals were positive. The School Committee rated Morris as meeting or exceeding all of them, as did the Pelham School Committee.

The Regional School Committee gave Morris slightly lower marks, with four members voting that Morris had made “significant progress” — one level below having “met” his goals — on strategic planning. One member marked Morris as only making “some progress” on communications, strategic planning and social justice professional development.

Regional School Committee members had particular praise for Morris’ handling of deep budget cuts this year, guiding the district through those decisions while also taking part in union negotiations and other districtwide initiatives, such as the climate survey.

Morris’ goals and the committees’ evaluations of them are tied to four standards set forward by the state’s education department: curriculum, instruction and assessment; management and operations; family and community engagement; and professional culture.

On those standards, all three committees rated Morris as proficient or exemplary across the board.

The evaluations come amid community scrutiny, however, over the district’s hiring practices after Morris passed up two licensed candidates of color for the middle school principal position in favor of trying reappoint to the current principal, Patty Bode, who did not yet have an administrative license.

After that decision, a state audit found that several principals in the district had been working with expired administrative licenses. Some town residents said the situation fit into a larger picture of institutional failings in the district when trying to diversify staff and leadership.

During a Regional School Committee meeting last Tuesday, members attempted to explain how those licensure and hiring controversies affected their evaluations. Shutesbury representative Stephen Sullivan began by saying the situation weighed heavily on his mind.

“The licensure issue has bothered me since the beginning because as someone who spent 30 years working on attaining a license, the whole issue of not having a license just really struck a chord with me,” he said. “And I find it really bothersome.”

Anastasia Ordonez said that some situations aren’t directly reflected in the evaluation documents, given the goal-focused format of those evaluations.

“It’s important to remind ourselves and the community that we agreed upon a set number of goals at the start of the year, and that is what we are evaluating him on,” Ordonez said.

Ordonez did add, however, that Morris could improve “irregularities in communicating with a community and providing information about how processes take place.”

Some similar criticism did make it into the Regional School Committee’s evaluation document.

“An evaluator also highlighted the need for Dr. Morris to focus on improving communication, particularly of controversial or difficult topics, in a more clear, easily understood manner,” the Regional School Committee’s evaluation reads.

Peter Demling said that he agreed Morris could improve his communication when it comes to difficult subjects.

“That being said, I am satisfied that his attention and efforts over the course of the year weren’t primarily focused on PR and giving speeches and getting that kind of level of support, and were more focused on what the real long-term solution to these endemic problems are, which is sustained effort, hard work, practical solutions driven by staff,” Demling said, adding that fellow Regional School Committee members should not let the “volume” of criticism, or its arrival late in the school year, cast a shadow on an entire year of work.