Just a handful of Amherst residents turned out to comment at a joint meeting of the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 School Committees last night, to make themselves heard on the likely appointment of Interim Superintendent Michael Morris to the permanent post.
A few people urged the committee to approve Morris, to fill the job left vacant about a year ago when former superintendent Maria Geryk resigned. Others said the committee should launch a full-fledged search process. However, speakers on both sides emphasized that they like Morris.
Resident Victoria Cliche said she got to know Morris, who was formerly an assistant superintendent and Crocker Farm Elementary principal, through the Amherst Regional Middle School PGO. Cliche offered her “enthusiastic support” of Morris, and recalled being in his office last year, “begging and cajoling him” to apply. “I think this would be the best thing for the district,” she said.
A nationwide superintendent search earlier this year had to be called off, when it was found that a firm the district hired, Ray & Associates, didn’t follow Massachusetts regulations about job applications for public-sector jobs. The school committees previously discussed conducting a new search this fall. However, Morris, who formerly said he would not vie for the superintendent’s post, recently told the committees that he changed his mind.
At a Sept. 6 meeting, Morris explained that last year was a difficult time for the district, and he was concerned about whether the community could view him independently from Geryk, for whom he worked as assistant superintendent. Time has passed, and Morris is no longer worried about the issue, meeting minutes state. Meanwhile, Morris is pleased with “positive momentum” in long-range planning for the schools, and re-envisioning student services.
Morris appears to have widespread support on the school committees. Last night, the sole member to speak in favor of a search was Stephen Sullivan of Shutesbury, who said the committees owe it to the public to do so. Member Vira Douangmany Cage was absent last night, but Sept. 6 minutes show her praising Morris for his accountability and positive relationships with committee members.
Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima said he would make an inquiry about the availability of free or low-cost superintendent search help as Sullivan suggested. Nakajima and Union 26 Chairwoman Anastasia Ordonez said they would also draft a request for quotes from search firms, to be held in reserve if a public presentation by Morris on Sept. 26 is somehow found wanting.
“I just want to capture the phrase, ‘I like Mike,” Amherst resident Katie Lazdowski said during the comment period. “But we need to move forward and do a national search … I would advocate strongly that we do this process justice.”
Kathleen Anderson, president of the Amherst chapter of the NAACP, said she also “likes Mike,” but that the district “really needs to vet a candidate” who can focus on social justice issues and the needs of a multicultural school system.
Meanwhile, resident Gary Tartakov said the next person to hold the superintendent’s post “will be in a stronger position if they result from a search.”
Conversely, Jeff Lee, who said he knows Morris from the Enrollment Working Group, urged rapid hiring of him. “Mostly I worry that we might lose Dr. Morris to another school district if we delay,” Lee said. It is unknown whether Morris has applied for other jobs in recent months.
The public comment period was supposed to last 30 minutes, but was over in far less. Nakajima said the committee is accepting public input via regular mail and email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. A deadline was set of Sept. 19 .
Questions arose about whether comments can be sent anonymously, and Nakajima said the best route is “snail mail.” Committee member Peter Demling said that people sending email can request their messages be anonymous, and office staff will remove identifying information before forwarding email to the committee.
The possibility of an anonymous online survey was discussed, but Demling warned that such systems can be hacked easily, with multiple responses submitted by a single person. Nakajima added that he has “serious concerns” about the validity and tone of comments people might make when cloaked in anonymity.
Ordonez added that there is abundant information about Morris, as a longtime district employee. “We have, arguably, 18 years worth of proof points for Dr. Morris,” she said. Morris underwent an anonymous evaluation process a few months ago by district teachers and staff, who indicated their “overwhelming support,” for his efforts, Ordonez said.
The committee has asked Morris to hold a public “job talk” about his goals for the district, on Sept. 26 at 6:30 p.m.