At the moment, it seems unlikely that the Amherst Regional Public Schools will have a new superintendent in place by July 1 as was planned.
The Amherst Regional and Union 26 School Committees voted unanimously to suspend the current search for a new school superintendent last night, after discovering that consultants Ray & Associates asked applicants about their criminal histories far earlier in the process than allowed by Massachusetts law.
The committees reached no decision about whether to try and break the district’s $17,000 contract with Ray & Associates, of Cedar Rapids, IA., or about when to launch a fresh search. The next joint committee meeting is next Tues., March 21.
The committees previously set a tight timeline for the superintendent search, which would fill the post vacated by former Superintendent Maria Geryk last summer. Geryk resigned, and was granted a $309,000 buyout, after a series of controversies including the banning of a Pelham mother from school grounds. The superintendent’s job is now held by Interim Superintendent Michael Morris, who was previously an assistant and an acting superintendent. Last week, Morris announced that he wouldn’t apply for the permanent post, but plans to keep working for the district.
The approved search timeline, which began Jan. 10, was slated to wrap up next month, with interviews of finalists, site visits and a contract offer. The membership of a Superintendent Search Screening Committee was just finalized, after lengthy dialogue about the need for diverse community representation and fair allocation of limited PGO seats.
However, at last night’s meeting, Amherst Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima cited changes to Massachusetts state law several years ago. The law now bars questioning of candidates for public posts about any criminal records in the early phases of job applications. Nakajima said the regulation, overseen by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, was put in place so that applicants would be judged first on their qualifications, rather than on criminal history, which in many cases may be minor, long past, or the result of substance abuse issues that were since overcome.
The district’s Human Resources Director, Kathryn Mazur, told the committees that the district stopped asking for criminal background information in 2010, although finalists are subject to deeper questioning, and hiring itself is contingent upon the results of a criminal background check.
Mazur said she noticed the unlawful questions on the Ray & Associates online application forms before they “went live,” and submitted corrections to the consultants, which were ignored.
There was “some frustration” in working with the firm, which “didn’t seem to care, or respond with urgency,” Nakajima said,
Mazur said that of the $17,000 contract with Ray & Assoc., $13,000 to $14,000 has been expended. She said about $20,000 has been spent to advertise the position, including $15,000 paid directly by the district. If was unclear last night exactly how much has been spent on the search, and by whom.
Prior to the search suspension vote, Amherst School Committee member Vira Douangmany Cage said that if the district continues working with Ray & Associates, “we should be reimbursed for those charges.” She added that the firm should be responsible for additional advertising.
Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy said the presence of the unlawful questions no doubt had an impact on the pool of applicants, and potentially discouraged some good candidates. “This search is seriously flawed … we had an illegal and discriminatory application,” Appy said, adding. “This search has failed.”
Appy, Union 26 Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez and others emphasized that the school committees intended a search that would bring in a diverse group of candidates, to reflect the town’s changing demographics.
The district was told that Ray & Associates had used the same application forms for 40 years, and did not intend to change them, Nakajaima said, adding that the forms did ask about criminal history, and required dates of offenses and related charges.
Lawyer Thomas Colomb told the school committees that there was “no perfect remedy” for the improper applications having been distributed, and the existing candidate pool “needs to be erased,” as a result.
The application window opened in early February and closed last Friday, March 10. However, Nakajima said that the committees have yet to receive any applicant information from Ray & Associates. As of late afternoon today (March 16) the Amherst superintendent’s job was still posted on the Ray & Associates website. http://rayassoc.com/job-details.php?ID=368