Editor’s note: Below is an open letter from Janet McGowan of Amherst, an attorney and mediator whose two adult children attended town public schools. McGowan, who has lived in Amherst for 14 years and serves on Town Meeting (Precinct 8), is seeking additional signers for this letter. Those wishing to do so can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Spectator of Amherst welcomes submission of guest columns from a variety of perspectives on this and other local issues. Submissions and email can be sent to: https://amherstspectator.com/contact/
By JANET McGOWAN
Dear Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee and the Union 26 School Committee:
I urge your committees to conduct a full, open and robust job search for a permanent school superintendent. After a failed search last spring, the Amherst community was told a new search would start this fall. Now, we learn that the school committees will vote in early October on whether to simply hire Acting Superintendent Michael Morris for the permanent post.
I and others understand that Dr. Morris has done a commendable job of working with the committees since the turmoil of spring and summer 2016. This period included the resignation of (and prospect of a lawsuit by) former Superintendent Maria Geryk. There were heated arguments among members of Regional Committee and Union 26, and resignation of the Regional chairwoman. A period of calm was necessary.
Unfortunately, the Amherst community did not get that calm. In the months that followed, the “Wildwood School Building Project” divided our town. The former plan to close the Fort River Elementary School, create two “co-located” schools on the Wildwood site, and reconfigure our K-6 system created deep divisions. The ensuing debate and related Town Meeting and referendum votes went on for months. The Massachusetts School Building Authority could have been asked officially to delay and change the project after Geryk left. But this step was not taken, and ultimately tens of millions in state funding was lost.
Dr. Morris led the Wildwood School Building Project from its inception in 2014 and through the controversy, continuing to press the project even after it was no longer politically viable. Feelings remain so high that the Amherst School Committee has spent more than three months deciding how to pick the members of the Fort River Feasibility Study Committee.
The Regional School Committee and Union 26 need to open the search for superintendent, and hire the most qualified candidate because:
- It’s a critical time. We can’t identify the best possible superintendent without an open job search, which reaches out to all qualified candidates. Our superintendent must be chosen through objective, measurable criteria, including work experience, leadership skills and accomplishments. Previous superintendent searches have produced some excellent candidates.
- An open, national search will create a level playing field for all candidates, including people of color, women, underrepresented groups, and outsiders. Our district, which touts “an unequivocal commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion,” is contemplating a search process that is closed to all candidates but one. Historically, such processes have favored one group. If, as the district’s website states, its mission is the academic achievement of every student, “in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism,” the district must walk its talk. Students of color and female students need to be shown that opportunities can result from hard work.
- Acting superintendent is not the same job as permanent superintendent, and Dr. Morris’ only administrative experience is within the Amherst system. If Dr. Morris is hired after a quick informal hiring process, he will be the 3rd person in a row to lead our schools, who has not previously been a permanent superintendent. Neither Dr. Alberto Rodriguez nor Maria Geryk had led a school district as superintendent before they were hired.
- Our schools face serious problems. The elementary schools, middle school and administration have suffered from years of administrative churn. Our schools face declining enrollment, an achievement gap, and serious questions about the treatment and experience of students of color. We also have students who don’t feel academically challenged. Our elementary communities remain divided over the Wildwood School Building Project’s failure. The exodus of students to charter and vocational schools will cause Amherst to lose over $4 million this year, an amount that has risen by a $1 million annually the past few years.
Wouldn’t an experienced superintendent who is an effective leader and problem-solver be best for our district? It will become evident if Dr. Morris is best candidate to emerge from an open application process, but he must also compete.
There is an upside to a normal, fair and open hiring process. A search firm will solicit candidates, a search committee will form, and resumes will be examined. The process would be open to parents, teachers and residents, who could meet and interview finalists. Countless other school districts use this kind of process. What is the rush to make this critical decision, which will potentially impact thousands of Amherst children for years to come? The superintendent earns one of Amherst’s top salaries and oversees six schools and budgets of $60 million. If Dr. Morris is hired in early October, the Amherst School Committee will have spent more time deciding how to select members for the Fort River Feasibility Study Committee than Union 26 and the Regional Committee will have taken in hiring a superintendent.
My final concern is about how to create a strong pool of candidates. Talented individuals could be reluctant to apply if they believe an inside candidate is strongly favored. The committees must set up an objective, independent evaluation process with measurable, objective criteria, and keep their minds open. Wide community input could help accomplish these goals.
I urge you to conduct the national superintendent search announced last spring, and take time to make a thoughtful decision.