By NICK GRABBE Tuesday, March 9, 2010
AMHERST - Alberto Rodriguez, whose eight months as superintendent of schools started and ended in controversy, is now gone because of negative feedback given to the School Committee by senior administrators.
The upheaval in the superintendent's position occurs just two weeks before Amherst voters go to the polls to decide the fate of a tax override, which will have a large impact on next year's school budget. It comes a week before teachers are scheduled to vote on a proposal to give up some salary increases provided to them by their union contract.
Rodriguez, who was informed of the comments from staff members Friday, was not in his office Monday morning. He came to the Regional Middle School Monday night and signed a joint statement with the chairmen of the Regional, Amherst and Union 26 School Committees.
It reads: "After the committees' and Dr. Rodriguez's receipt of the survey results from employees, particularly the feedback from a majority of senior administrative personnel who report to Dr. Rodriguez, the committees and Dr. Rodriguez agreed that it was in the best interests of all parties for Dr. Rodriguez to leave his position as superintendent of the districts."
Farshid Hajir, chairman of the Regional School Committee, declined to answer questions. It was unclear what the senior administrators said about Rodriguez, what financial arrangements were made, and who would be acting superintendent. The committee meets tonight at 6:30 at Town Hall.
Following a report in Monday's Gazette saying that lawyers for the School Committee were negotiating the terms of the superintendent's departure, Amherst citizens reacted to the surprising news.
Karen Zilberstein said she's worried about the lack of consistent leadership in the schools.
"We really need a superintendent who will bring people together in a constructive way," said Zilberstein, who has children in the elementary, middle and high schools.
Rodriguez is the fifth superintendent to lead the Amherst schools in barely more than a year. A year ago, Zilberstein said she was "outraged" by the School Committee process that led to his hiring. On Monday, she was worried about how the turmoil at the top will look to capable people considering whether they will respond to an advertisement that Amherst schools are hiring, such as for its vacant middle school principal post.
"There seems to be a divide in Amherst," she said. "Things get polarized in an unhelpful way. We're all closer to the middle. Parents, administrators and teachers want the same thing, but somehow the conversation goes awry."
Still a good choice
Elaine Brighty was finishing nine years on the School Committee a year ago when she voted in favor of hiring Rodriguez. She said she still thinks he was a good choice, adding that it was necessary to pay him a high salary to get him to come.
"Amherst is a very challenging, very demanding superintendency, and you have to pay people to do it," she said. "We're an academic community, very hands-on, very critical, with people who are certain they know the right way to do things and have no hesitancy in telling you."
Former Principal Michael Greenebaum said he was "not happy with some characteristics of Rodriguez that I saw as a tendency to authoritarianism." He agreed with the superintendent, though, on moving the sixth grade to the middle school, he said.
"It's hard to be a public figure in this environment," he said, citing the ability of residents to post anonymous and often cutting remarks on blogs.
Greenebaum, who led Mark's Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, said the School Committee should not use the same consultant who located Rodriguez a year ago.
"Maybe there are some people here who can do the job," he said. "I'd like a more modest position, with principals and school councils and parents and teachers having more responsibility."
Sharon Vardatira, the parent of a 10th-grader, said she is worried about the impact of the Rodriguez flap on the override March 23.
"I hope people can separate this situation from the override," she said. "I trust the School Committee is trying to do what's right for the town."
Eileen Marasco, the parent of a fourth-grader, said the school system is "closer to a crisis point," adding that "the toxic nature of the blogosphere is counterproductive to forward movement."
"True leadership from elected positions is accomplished not by a mark on a post of #I'm right' this many times," she said. "It's earned by building consensus, involving many voices, and it comes down to doing what's right, not who's right."
Stan Gawle, an override opponent, said Rodriguez "was making some changes that needed to be made. There seems to be a serious attempt for the first time to go after efficiencies in the use of our tax dollars in the schools."
Rodriguez called himself a "change agent."
"A guy who comes into a system and wants to make change is going to make enemies," Gawle said.
Rodriguez was the fifth person to head the Amherst schools since Superintendent Jere Hochman left in the summer of 2008.
In the fall of 2008, consultant Jacqueline Roy told the School Committee that the pool of potential superintendents was thin that year. Her firm, which had recruited Hochman, was paid $39,050 to conduct focus groups on what Amherst wanted in a superintendent and to locate candidates.
A year ago, seven Regional School Committee members voted to offer the job to Rodriguez, who was a principal in Hialeah, Fla., but three of them said they didn't think he was a good fit for Amherst. Committee member Catherine Sanderson voted for another candidate.
His first controversy, over pay, started before Rodriguez even arrived. The committee offered to pay him $158,000 a year, plus $10,000 in housing and $5,000 in travel expenses. Hochman had received $134,583 a year.
Last September, Glenda Cresto resigned as middle school principal four days after classes started. In November, Rodriguez said he would ask faculty and staff to lead group recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance each morning, but backpedaled three days later after being advised of legal concerns.
In mid-February, he gave the School Committee a memo outlining his 40 days off between last Aug. 10 and this April 26, including nine days of future sick leave. He did not reveal until later that he had a medical condition that would require surgery in mid-April.
Note from Catherine: I'd like to refer all blog readers to the statement released unanimously by the School Committees and Dr. Rodriguez, which clearly states the reason for his departure: feedback from a majority of senior administrators who report to Dr. Rodriguez. This is NOT a case in a which a person who makes $173,000 a year can't stand a vocal community, parents with high expectations, or anonymous comments on blogs, and thus decides to leave 8 months into his contract. And if we spend time focusing on how this is such a demanding community in which to work, we will have failed to learn a valuable lesson about how to hire--and not hire--a superintendent. Dr. Rodriguez's CV was posted on line prior to his hire, and is still available on line at: http://www.arps.org/node/698. If you read this CV, as I did a year ago, you can see that at the time of his hire, he was a principal of a high school (not a superintendent or assistant superintendent), that his entire career had been spent in Miami (a community about as different from Amherst as one could be), and that he has served four different stints in a superintendent-type role (and that each of these positions had lasted a year at most -- and often a matter of only a few months). Let's also remember that Dr. Rodriguez was chosen by last year's School Committee, not this years, and that of the current 9 members on the Regional School Committee, only one (Kathleen Anderson) initially voted for him (Andy and I both initially voted for another candidate, and Tracy Farnham believed we should have failed the search).
My Goal in Blogging
I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.