Editorial: Michael Morris deserves permanent job as Amherst school superintendent

  • Michael Morris, the interim school superintendent in Amherst, has reconsidered and now would accept the permanent job. BULLETIN FILE PHOTO

Saturday, September 16, 2017

We are glad that Michael Morris has reconsidered and now would accept the permanent job as school superintendent in Amherst. We urge his immediate appointment. Morris has proven that he is an effective, well-respected leader who has brought stability to the School Department during his year as interim superintendent.

The Amherst Regional and Union 26 school committees, which jointly hire the superintendent, should avoid another costly and time-consuming search by removing the interim tag from Morris’ job.  

Morris, 39, of Amherst, has worked in the town’s schools for 17 years as an elementary teacher, principal of Crocker Farm School, director of evaluation and assessment and, since 2014, as assistant superintendent. 

He volunteered to serve as interim school chief when Maria Geryk departed in August 2016 after a tumultuous period marked by frayed relations among school committee members and an erosion of their trust in the superintendent. When Geryk left, she was given a $309,238 buyout by the school committees, which oversee the regional secondary schools attended by Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury students, and the elementary schools in Amherst and Pelham. 

A national search for a permanent superintendent ended abruptly in March after the school committees discovered that their consultant had violated state law by asking inappropriate questions about candidates’ criminal backgrounds, disregarding the advice given by the regional school district’s human resources director. 

In taking the interim post, and just after the failed search, Morris said he would not be a candidate for the permanent job and planned eventually to return to his position as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. However, last week Morris said that distance from the events of 2016 and reflection about his work since then led him to change his mind. “It feels markedly different than applying for the job seven months ago,” he said.

Morris also cited new staff, including Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent for diversity, equity and human resources, and positive momentum resulting from working groups focused on issues facing the schools. “The team we have now at the administrative and district levels feels very different,” Morris said. “We’re now functioning in a way that is very exciting to me, and energizing.”

School board members reacted positively to Morris’ interest in becoming the permanent leader. Anastasia Ordonez, of Amherst, who chairs the Union 26 committee, said many teachers, other staff and residents had voiced their support for Morris. “He’s worked hard for our district and shown an ability to deftly manage district budgets, community needs and student achievement,” she said.”We’re looking forward to formally considering his candidacy.”

Eric Nakajima, of Amherst, who chairs the regional school committee, echoed that assessment and added that the decision on a new superintendent is also about establishing a long-term vision for leadership. “If we decide to appoint Dr. Morris, it will give us a lot of stability for the year,” he said. “This is really about looking ahead at the future. We’re excited about the direction for the district.”

Five residents who spoke at Tuesday's meeting of the regional school committee all had positive things to say about Morris, though three suggested that he should be considered as a candidate only as part of a national search.

We believe a search is not necessary. A practical reason to forgo another search is the expected savings of between $20,000 and $25,000.

Moreover, Amherst does not need a search to find a candidate who can lead the healing that the School Department needs to continue after Geryk’s divisive tenure and a fractious year of controversy over the $66.37 million elementary school project that ultimately was defeated in March after a series of split votes. Morris has successfully started that healing process and should be allowed to see it through by removing any doubt that he will lead the schools for the next several years.

As a result of the failed project, school board members must focus their attention on the immediate repairs needed for the two 40-year-old elementary schools in Amherst, and examine longer-term options including more extensive renovations to those buildings or another plan to replace them.

We expect Morris will make a strong case for his appointment when he meets with the school committees  Sept. 26. A vote on Morris’ appointment  is scheduled for Oct. 10, and we hope that board members unanimously endorse him. Morris has earned that support.