Executive session minutes show 2 Amherst school board members wanted to stand up to school chief

  • Amherst School Committee Chair Laura Kent, left, speaks before the committee entered executive session Aug. 17 at Amherst Regional High School. Other members are, from left: Trevor Baptiste, Anastasia Ordonez, Vira Douangmany Cage, Sarah Dolven, Stephen Sullivan and Emily Marriott. gazette staff/jerrey roberts

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee member Trevor Baptiste, right, is one of two members who wanted to stand up to the threat of a lawsuit by former Superintendent Maria Geryk, executive session minutes show. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Vince O'Connor, right, speaks to Amherst School Committee members Trevor Baptiste, from left, Laura Kent, Sarah Dolven, Anastasia Ordonez, Vira Douangmany Cage and Stephen Sullivan during public comment following the announcement of the terms of departure for School Superintendent Maria Geryk, Tuesday at Amherst Regional High School.

Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2016

AMHERST — Even with former Superintendent Maria Geryk threatening a lawsuit against the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, which prompted the Amherst Regional and Union 26 school committees to pay her more than $300,000 to end her tenure, two members hoped to stand up to her claim, according to unofficial minutes from four executive sessions obtained by the Gazette Friday.

The 14 hours of executive sessions began July 13 with the filing of an informal claim by Geryk, through an email from her attorney, Michael Long, in which she sought terms of separation from the district. She originally asked for a three-year severance from her $158,000-a-year contract.

“Included in the non-exhaustive list of claims were violations to the contract, constitutional claims, defamation, ethics and emotional distress,” according to the minutes.

But the regional and Union 26 school committees immediately decided to cap any offer of a payout to Geryk at one-and-a-half years, slicing in half the amount from her demand.

The final deal reached allows Geryk to receive $309,238 over the next two years, and also includes a non-disparagement component that limits statements members can make about her.

The official minutes that led to the agreement, the specific terms of the agreement and a demand letter that Geryk’s attorney submitted on her behalf have not yet been publicly released by Laura Kent, chairwoman of the regional school committee.

Kent has pledged to release the minutes publicly, but is worried about possible Open Meeting Law violations.

In an email last week, Kent said she was “checking on that issue about the amended minutes and their potential in violating the OML if I release them amended.”

The Daily Hampshire Gazette obtained unofficial draft minutes from the sessions that show two members did not want to pursue the agreement. Three members, Stephen Sullivan, Trevor Baptiste and Vira Douangmany Cage, voted against the agreement.

The minutes show that after the informal email with Geryk’s initial claim was issued, both Pelham representative Trevor Baptiste and Amherst representative Vira Douangmany Cage challenged this, with Douangmany Cage stating “bring it on” and Baptiste adding that he was not afraid to have Geryk litigate the matter.

Douangmany Cage has also filed a consumer complaint with the state attorney general’s office seeking to halt the payout of the money, most of which is scheduled to be paid to Geryk Sept. 7.

The minutes indicate extensive conversation among members about how to approach and work in the best interest of the district, and avoid a timely and costly lawsuit.

At the first session, Baptiste said he was prepared to fire Geryk “because the district needs better leadership instead of impugning School Committee members.”

But most members sided with the district’s attorney, Thomas Colomb, that the best way to approach and reduce liability would be to come to an agreement. This included comments from Amherst representative Anastasia Ordonez.

“Ms. Ordonez raised the option of potential negotiation with the superintendent versus the implications of a lawsuit. Through her experience, there was value in avoiding a public situation that diminishes the attractiveness of the district moving forward.”

During the July 20 session, when a formal demand letter from Geryk was circulated, Baptiste said he wanted to have Geryk in the room to speak directly to her.

“He described feeling strongly about this primarily because the demand letter identified him and Vira Douangmany Cage as people the superintendent accused of both breaching her contract and defaming her,” according to the minutes.

But this was not what other members present wanted. “Other committee members felt that a meeting with the superintendent and the committee as a whole was not in the best interest of the committee and could jeopardize a successful outcome to the negotiation.”

At the third session, Aug. 1, Geryk amended her settlement request to 2½ years, which would have cost the district $485,000. This was rejected by members, who stuck to the 1½-year settlement offer.

By the fourth session, held Aug. 9 before the settlement vote, Douangmany Cage “expressed concern about moving forward with any settlement agreement at this point in time, and urged the committee to take their time in moving forward.”

Sarah Dolvan, Leverett’s representative, though, was not in support of postponement and “expressed concern about delaying a settlement agreement too long because it would likely result in a lawsuit being filed very soon, as threatened.”

Minutes from the July 13 session indicate that Baptiste, Douangmany Cage and Stephen Sullivan, Shutesbury’s representative, supported audio recording the executive sessions, but six members opposed.

The committee members have not yet approved release of the full demand letter from Geryk. Kent said she will consult with Colomb to see whether this is exempt from the Open Meeting Law.

Performance evaluations

Meanwhile, Kent released the individual 2015-2016 performance evaluations of Geryk on Friday, observing that how members viewed Geryk’s performance as superintendent was a secondary issue to Geryk’s request to sever ties with the district.

“That didn’t play into it as much as people think,” Kent said. Still, Kent said there was information in some evaluations that was in breach of Geryk’s contract, as well as state and local standards for completing evaluations. For instance, members who gave Geryk “needs improvement” or “unsatisfactory” marks, like those who gave her “exemplary” grades, had to include narratives of their reasoning. That wasn’t always the case.

In addition, complaints against the superintendent have to follow a formal process. Too often, Kent said, some committee members forgot or ignored the fact that employee protection aspects embedded in Geryk’s contract are important.

“We have an obligation to the law that we must follow,” Kent said.

Kent said she worked hard to make sure that all committee members’ evaluations were tallied into the summary review that she, as chairwoman, was responsible for compiling.

Even had some been discarded by necessity for not being in compliance, this wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the review. Seven of the 10 current and former members who completed evaluations gave Geryk “proficient” marks, similar to previous years. “That has been consistent with her tenure as superintendent,” Kent said.

The only evaluators who gave Geryk “needs improvement” marks were Baptiste and former Pelham representative Daniel Robb. Douangmany Cage issued a review that gave Geryk an “unsatisfactory” grade.

Katherine Appy, an Amherst representative, and former Leverett representative Kip Fonsh provided Geryk “exemplary” marks, with Pelham representatives Darius Modestow, Emily Marriott and Tara Luce, Amhert representative Phoebe Hazzard and former Amherst representative Rick Hood rating Geryk as “proficient.”

Still, according to minutes of the Aug. 1 meeting, Colomb told members that “Ms. Geryk’s position is that the evaluations are noncompliant because the committee did not afford her an opportunity to be heard on the complaints against her.”

Douangmany Cage didn’t explain why she gave Geryk an “unsatisfactory” overall rating, though in portions she wrote:

“The superintendent has created an environment that inflames racial hatred and hostility, and does not take action to diffuse conflict and controversy. Rather, the superintendent has presented a dysfunctional, sick and unhealthy and unwelcoming environment for certain segments of our community.”

Robb was also critical of Geryk’s leadership on social and racial justice issues.

“I have not yet seen a real willingness to meet aggrieved parties half-way, with a shared sense both of vulnerability and the love it takes to reach true reconciliation and truly mediated outcomes,” he wrote in his evaluation.

On the other side, Appy praised Geryk.

“As I think about how complicated it is to run three districts and move them all in the direction of best practice, it informs my overall determination of the superintendent’s work as going above and beyond proficient,” Appy wrote. “This has been highlighted by the district’s invitations to participate in important programming around the state.”

Marriott, too, supported Geryk’s leadership.

“Overall, I believe the direction that the superintendent is taking our schools is a good one with a strong vision for the future and considerable work is being done to deeply evaluate and improve practices to improve outcomes for all students,” Marriott wrote.

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