Search for Amherst school chief put on hold

  • Amherst Town Hall

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 21, 2017

AMHERST — The search for a new school leader is on hold after officials discovered this week that the company handling the work may have violated the state’s anti-discrimination law by asking candidates inappropriate questions about their criminal backgrounds.

In a joint meeting March 15, members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 school committees unanimously agreed to pause the search for a permanent superintendent. The search began in January with the selection of Ray and Associates Executive Leadership Search, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Human Resources Director Kathryn Mazur informed the committees that an online application for candidates included questions about their history of arrests and offenses that was not compliant with state statutes.

“We’re currently in the process of reviewing what our next steps are going to be and what our options are working with Ray and Associates,” said Eric Nakajima, chairman of the regional committee and an Amherst representative.

Nakajima said school counsel Thomas Colomb, of the law firm Murphy, Hesse, Toomey & Lehane of Quincy, is evaluating the application forms and determining what questions could be asked and what questions should not have been included.

Najakima said the nine members of the two committees present at Wednesday’s meeting decided to put a hold on the search because there needs to be absolute confidence in the process. Leverett and Shutesbury’s representatives to the regional committee were not in attendance that night, he said.

The search is being done to find a successor to Maria Geryk, who departed in August with a $309,238 severance package. The superintendent oversees both the middle and high schools, students from Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury, as well as the four elementary schools in Amherst and Pelham.

Anastasia Ordonez, chairwoman of the Union 26 committee and an Amherst representative, explained that Mazur had noticed the inappropriate questions on the initial draft applications and told staff at Ray and Associates that it could be a violation of a Massachusetts discrimination law. Even so, the questions got into the final applications published and provided to candidates, and may have been responded to by some interested in the job.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination outlines what is and isn’t OK to ask job candidates. Candidates can be asked if they have been convicted of a felony or completed a period in jail within the past five years for any misdemeanor. But it is out of bounds to ask about an arrest that didn’t lead to a conviction or about first convictions “for misdemeanors of drunkenness, simple assault, speeding, minor traffic violations, affray or disturbance of the peace.”

It’s unknown how many candidates provided answers to the questions, how these may have affected their status as candidates and whether there is any way to remedy the situation, Ordonez said.

When Michael Rush, an associate for Ray and Associates, came to the school committee’s joint meeting from Lakewood, New Jersey in January, he explained that the field of candidates would be narrowed to eight to 12 people on the basis of answers to 25 questions. Three finalists would then be interviewed publicly.

A call to Rush on Friday was not immediately returned.

Ordonez said everyone has tired to do the search in good faith, but at this point it’s unknown if the process is compromised.

She added that committee members want to pick up the search process as quickly as possible and “to make sure we’re following the law and open to as many candidates as possible.”

Ray and Associates already had been operating under an aggressive timeline to have a superintendent hired in early spring and in place for July 1.

The decision to suspend the search comes before a screening committee was going to bring finalists forward for public interviews with the school committees and visits in early April.

Assistant Superintendent Michael Morris, who has been the interim superintendent since Geryk left, announced earlier this month he would not be a candidate.

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