Amherst-Pelham school boards scramble to fill superintendent post as Morris takes sudden leave

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Morris announced Friday he would be taking a leave of absence due to health reasons. A day later, the education union announced it has no cofidence in Morris and wants his assistant superitendent to resign. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 18, 2023

AMHERST — Eight educators, mostly people who already work in the system, are being considered to be the acting superintendent for the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham public schools.

The Amherst Regional School Committee and the Superintendency Union 26 Committee were expected to appoint a person on Thursday to the temporary role as Superintendent Michael Morris takes a medical leave on his doctor’s orders. Morris announced on the afternoon of May 12 that he would be departing for an unspecified length of time.

Morris, superintendent of Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and the Pelham public schools on a temporary and permanent basis since late summer 2016, and an educator in the system for 22 years, alluded to dealing with mental health issues in a letter sent to families last Friday afternoon.

“Since mid-January I have been experiencing significant challenges that I believe are due, in part, to the intensity of work and life since the pandemic first began in March 2020. My intention was to take more time away from work each of the past three summers, but that has not been possible, particularly given pandemic-related work demands.”

His leave will begin immediately, he wrote.

“After consulting with my doctor today, I have been advised that my health is being impacted and I need to take some time away, starting immediately. After this time away, I look forward to returning to my role as Superintendent at ARPS.”

The school committees met Tuesday for nearly six hours, first taking three hours of feedback from the community before determining how to fill the void in the district’s leadership.

A day after the message to the community from Morris, the union representing teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical staff said it had taken a no-confidence vote in Morris and also called for his assistant superintendent’s resignation.

That announcement by the Amherst Pelham Education Association’s executive board came just a few days after counselors at the middle school were alleged to have engaged in transphobic actions. Three staff members were later placed on leave.

In addition to the no-confidence vote, the union is also demanding the resignation of Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent for diversity, equity and human resources. Cunningham has been criticized for hires, including the middle school counselors at the center of recent controversy. She also came under fire for the recent failed middle school principal search in which accusations were leveled that she had a previous relationship with one of the finalists, a contention she denied.

Cunningham told the school committees Tuesday, though, that she has no plans to resign, but instead is ready to confront the issues the district is facing. She also took her name out of the running to be the acting superintendent.

The union wished Morris well and offered support for his need to get healthy, but then cited reasons for having no confidence in him, including that no similar positive collaboration was offered educators or students.

“Unfortunately, for many staff and students, this has not been the case for several years in the district. Problems have been allowed to fester under his and Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham’s leadership,” the union’s statement said.

The reasons cited for the vote include an unsafe environment for children, including the way Morris has dealt with complaints around marginalized and LGBTQ communities, and unethical hiring practices and a toxic work environment created by Cunningham.

Search for replacement

The school committees offered sympathy and praise for Morris. In a statement from Ben Herrington, Amherst representative and chairman of the regional committee, Allison McDonald, Amherst representative and chairwoman of the Amherst committee, Sarah Hall, chairwoman of the Pelham committee and Peter Demling, Amherst representative and chairman of the Union 26 committee, the committee said: “First and foremost, our hearts go out to Dr. Morris as he takes the time to care for his personal health and well-being. We fully support his taking leave at this time, and we applaud his courage in being open and honest with all of us about his experience in leading our schools through a series of unprecedented challenges over the years and the toll that this has taken.”

The statement continues, “Through it all Mike has worked tirelessly to lead numerous school initiatives while prioritizing the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of others. Acknowledging our own mental health issues and accepting help carries a stigma in our society that can be overcome by supporting one another in times of need. We deeply appreciate Mike’s service to our schools and community and we look forward to his return as Superintendent at ARPS.”