Audit probes administrative licenses in Amherst-Pelham district

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, June 07, 2018

AMHERST — A state audit of administrative licenses for principals and assistant principals in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District revealed that longtime principals at the high school and Wildwood Elementary have been working with expired licenses.

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education conducted the audit following a complaint they received from an Amherst parent about several educators in supervisory roles working without licenses.

Findings outlined in correspondence between Brian Devine, director of the state Office of Educator Licensure, and Superintendent Michael Morris show that Mark Jackson has been working as the principal at the high school with an expired license this school year and Nicholas Yaffe has been working as the principal at Wildwood Elementary with an expired license since at least the 2013-2014 school year.

Both licenses were renewed May 31, based on information available on DESE’s website.

Additionally, six other administrators currently working under a license waiver from the state will leave their positions at the end of the school year, including the middle school principal.

Christine Harmon, a parent of three children who served on a search panel for middle school principal this spring, recently obtained the correspondence between Devine and Morris.

The three-page memo, which Devine sent to Morris on May 30, outlines the status of licenses and waivers for administrators in the district and acknowledges receipt of a plan from Morris on May 18 that will “ensure that the administrative team and all educators have the appropriate license for the roles that they perform” and that the district’s “approach is consistent with practices recommended by the licensure office.”

Harmon said this communication is only an initial response and the matter is not closed, and leaves unanswered questions for her.

“Why has Mike Morris turned Amherst public schools into a learn-as-you-go path to administration licensure for a select few people at the expense of the students?” Harmon said.

Devine’s letter observes that SchoolSpring, the application software the district uses in the hiring process, often has collected incorrect information about applicants and whether they are qualified. This has allowed the district to seek waivers on behalf of educators, which are typically granted, but usually only when there is an unsuccessful search for a qualified, licensed candidate.

Doreen Cunningham, assistant superintendent of diversity, equity and human resources for the Amherst-Pelham district, has confirmed previously that information in some previous waiver requests was erroneous due to what she characterized as a “filtering issue.”

Cunningham said in an email Friday that 15 of 21 administrators have licenses. Four others have received waivers and two are not licensed, she said.

“We are working to provide DESE with the additional data that they have requested,” Cunningham said.

Jackson, Yaffe details

According to the DESE memo, two principals without active licenses are Jackson and Yaffe. The letter notes that the information reflects licensure status as of May 17, and does not take into account any applications that have been made since that date.

Devine said Jackson obtained an initial license as a principal/assistant principal on June 1, 2012. Initial licenses are valid for five years. Based on information submitted by the district to the state, Jackson has been employed for more than five years as a principal/assistant principal since June 1, 2012, which means he did not have a valid license for legal employment during the current school year, the memo states.

“In addition, Mark Jackson’s tenure as principal of the high school appears to have started prior to his obtaining the license in 2012, which indicates the district initially employed him without a license or a waiver,” Devine wrote.

Yaffe received his initial license on Oct. 12, 2007. Based on data the district submitted to the state, Yaffe has worked for more than five years as principal/assistant principal since obtaining licensure, which means that he did not have a valid license for legal employment in those roles since at least the 2013-2014 school year, the memo states.

Several administrative changes are outlined in the memo, mostly related to those working under waivers, including the departures from their roles at the end of the school year of Patty Bode, middle school principal; and Alicia Lopez and David Ranen, the assistant principals at the middle school; Yaldira Brown as assistant principal at Wildwood School; Sharri Conklin as assistant principal at Crocker Farm; and Ericka Alschuler as interim assistant principal at the high school.

The district’s most recent hire, Renee Greenfield, appointed as assistant principal at Fort River, will need to get a license, Devine wrote. “If she does not obtain a license, she will not start in the position and the district will consider other options for the leadership structure,” he wrote.

Middle school search

Harmon began researching the license issue when Morris passed over the search committee’s recommendations for the middle school principal position, and announced that he would reappoint Bode on a waiver for a third year. Harmon called this decision discriminatory, as two candidates of color recommended by the search committee were passed over for the position.

Harmon has also filed an Office of Civil Rights complaint against the district.

Vira Douangmany Cage, who served on the Amherst School Committee for three years, said the topic of licenses never came up during her tenure, but she appreciates the work Harmon has put in to identify this issue.

“What has been happening is not healthy for the school district,” Douangmany Cage said, adding that she finds it hard to believe that it’s difficult to find administrators who are licensed.

Douangmany Cage said it is troubling to hire Greenfield, when current assistant principal Martha Toro, a licensed applicant, was available. This may indicate officials are not taking the matter seriously, she said.

“It’s very disappointing to not have a full acknowledgement of the extent of the problem,” Douangmany Cage said.

Harmon is also concerned about this recent hire.

“The SchoolSpring filtering error doesn’t explain why at Fort River, a dual language school, the current vice principal, a highly qualified Latina educator with multiple licenses, just lost her job to an unlicensed white woman with no vice principal experience, mirroring what occurred with the middle school hiring process,” Harmon said.

Cunningham has been working on the licensing issue for several months. She completed an audit of licenses after being hired in July 2017, and informed unlicensed administrators of their need to obtain licensure. She implemented a policy for those serving in a position on waivers, with a requirement that these positions would be reposted. To request another waiver, any administrator would have to meet six progress points.

“Every educator who needed a waiver met with me. We created a plan of action. This is back in August,” Cunningham said at a recent School Committee meeting.

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