Salary for equity position used to help pay Geryk settlement in Amherst

  • Michael Morris, acting superintendent of the Amherst-Pelham school district, is pictured at a forum last school year. gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Thursday, September 29, 2016

AMHERST — Despite continued complaints from some residents that issues of equity and diversity are not being addressed sufficiently by the Amherst-Pelham school district, a portion of the money paid to former Superintendent Maria Geryk to end her tenure came from an administrative position responsible for promoting cross-cultural understanding and inclusion.

While more than half of the $295,000 Geryk settlement in the fiscal year that began July 1 was from sources such as $100,000 in natural gas savings and $55,109 in contingencies in health insurance plans, the remaining money came from $105,875 that the district could use for additional teachers and aides and the unfilled administrative position known as director of equity and professional development.

That position had been occupied by Monica Hall, a former Fort River School principal who assumed the work in mid-2014, until she resigned Aug. 1 to become principal of the Manara Academy’s Irving Elementary School in Irving, Texas.

Sean Mangano, finance director for the schools, said at a joint meeting of the regional and Union 26 committees Aug. 17 that the salary for this unfilled administrative position would be used as a source for the Geryk payout, in part to prevent the use of instructional money that directly affects student learning.

“The plan is not to fill that position, and to use those funds to cover the settlement,” Mangano said.

In a recent telephone interview, Mangano said Hall’s resignation created an “opening we weren’t expecting” and that a decision was made by school officials that the position would not be filled.

Michael Morris, acting superintendent, said in a statement issued by Debbie Westmoreland, assistant to the superintendent, that the decision was based on being fiscally responsible.

“When Ms. Hall resigned, the decision was made to hold off on filling the position given a number of unanticipated and unknown costs, such as the cost of repairing the high school gym floor,” Morris said. “We will have a more complete fiscal picture when the first quarter budget reports are completed and shared with the School Committee and public next month.”

He added, “Good fiscal management is a commitment we make to our member towns and a responsibility we take very seriously.”

Job responsibilities

When initially appointed to the position, Hall’s focus was on achievement gaps among different student demographic groups and other civil rights matters in the schools.

At the time Hall moved from Fort River principal to the central office, Geryk told the Gazette that the district needed the position to continue making strides in eliminating differences in achievement and disciplinary issues between white students and students of color.

“We need a position that makes connections between the departments,” Geryk said. “We need someone in place who supports hiring, recruitment and retention of staff of color and is responsible for mentoring” new staff.

But before Hall began in the position that paid her around $95,000 a year, it had been vacant for several years. It was originally created in the early 1990s as part of an effort to make the school system more multicultural, recruit minority candidates to fill teaching and administrative positions and to provide anti-racism instruction to teachers.

According to the job description, the primary function of the job includes “overall responsibility for the leadership of the district’s efforts in promoting cross-cultural understanding and competency, incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion goals into the everyday work of educational and administrative programs. This position will be responsible for creating measurable annual goals for diversity and equity initiatives, assessing progress and benchmarking initiatives against evolving best practices.”

Need unclear

Whether the position was fulfilling the district’s aims of promoting equity and diversity is unclear to observers of the schools.

Michael Burkart, a representative of the Amherst chapter of the NAACP, said he is not sure the position was necessary, noting that unless there is a commitment to change at the top of the system, efforts to enhance equity and improve school climate for all learners may not happen.

“It can be just a pro forma position,” Burkart said.

School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage, who chairs the School Equity Task Force, said the topic of this vacant job has not yet been discussed by its members who have not taken a position on whether it is needed.

Like Burkart, though, Douangmany Cage said it may not be essential in times of funding challenges.

“I think we have to tighten our fiscal budget, exercising fiscal restraint,” Douangmany Cage said.

Even though Douangmany Cage was critical of Geryk in her evaluation on race-related issues, writing that the “superintendent has created an environment that inflames racial hatred and hostility,” she said work on improving equity can be done by others in the school system.

“As far as I’m concerned, we need to look at the positions we already have in the district and ought to be able to provide students, teachers and staff the professional development and equity training that Monica was providing,” Douangmany Cage said.

Kathleen Anderson, president of the Amherst chapter of the NAACP, said if the schools were meeting their mission of “academic achievement of every student learning in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism,” there would already be administrators and educators equipped to perform cross-cultural understanding, while reducing the opportunity gap. As it stands, though, the position might be necessary to keep the district focused on this objective.

“The position of director and equity must be filled by a person strong enough to manage the pushback that frequently happens when in an organization when staff think they have mastered a subject, when in fact the members still have learning knowledge gaps,” Anderson said. “It is unfortunate that the district has chosen to eliminate the diversity and equity director position.”

The job was also the Title 1,Title IX and Civil Rights coordinator for the school district, and Hall was expected to work collaboratively with administrators in areas of professional development, student achievement and accountability.

Certain aspects of the job will be shifted to other administrators, Morris said.

Morris, for instance, is taking on the role of Title I grant administrator, with support from reading specialists at each elementary school and grants manager Leah Carver, and leading professional development with an administrative assistant.

Title III grant administration and English Language Learners will be overseen by Morris, but most of the work will be done by an ELL teacher.

Using Title 2A grant funds, two local equity consultants will lead work with second-year teachers, a leadership team, and the Equity Dialogue Group.

Finally, ALANA staff meetings will be continue to be led by Marta Guevara, director of student and family engagement.

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