School committee members from Amherst, Pelham and the regional board are at odds over the process followed to determine the future of their shared superintendent.
At issue is whether and how one of the towns within Union 26, which includes Amherst and Pelham, can withdraw from the 109-year-old union, according to emails circulating among committee members and subsequent interviews.
But what seems to be at the root of the brouhaha is trust.
Regional School Committee Chairman Farshid Hajir was scathing in his criticism of members of the Amherst School Committee attitudes.
"I am critical because I see the fabric of collaboration between the four towns that has existed for decades ... being frayed by unilateral action on the part of the Amherst School Committee."
Amherst School Committee Chairman Irv Rhodes said, for him, the biggest issue was the scheduling of the May 11 Union 26 without his input. He said the time and place of the meeting, as well as the agenda, should have been worked out together.
"You just don't go on and have a formless meeting on a topic like this of a sensitive nature without discussing procedure, process and format," Rhodes said. "All and all, the bottom line for me is that I was totally disrespected by the chair of Union 26, Tracy, the chair of the region, Farshid, and the superintendent, Maria (Geryk). It was if I was invisible, that I didn't exist, that I didn't count, like I was no one."
Meanwhile, in a string of testy emails discussing the scheduling issue, at least one participant urged people to tone down the rhetoric.
The exchanges, which circulated among Rhodes, Union 26 and Pelham School Committee Chairwoman Tracy Farnham, as well as other members of the Regional School Committee, highlighted the stakes involved in the talks surrounding the fate of Union 26, a collaboration between towns sharing board and a superintendent. Amherst and Pelham each have three representatives on the Union 26 board from their respective town School Committees.
On April 27, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to hire a lawyer to examine the Union 26 agreement, as well as a new state law that allows municipalities to withdraw from a school union by a one-time majority vote. Amherst member Steve Rivkin argued that a voting system in which Pelham and Amherst had three votes apiece was unfair, as Amherst students make up a drastically larger portion of the Union 26 student population, while the town pays a greater share of the district's costs.
"I am a very strong believer in proportional representation. I don't understand and am very troubled by an arrangement that has Amherst voters having one-tenth the representation of voters in Pelham," Rivkin said.
The decision to seek a legal opinion occurred after some Amherst members expressed discontent regarding a March 9 Union 26 vote, in which the board's three Pelham members joined Andy Churchill, then Amherst School Committee chairman, in promoting Maria Geryk to the position of interim superintendent.
The emails between members of the Regional School Committee - comprised of representatives from school boards from Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury - began on May 8.
The crux of the exchange centered around a decision by Hajir to call a joint meeting of the Regional and Union 26 school committees at the request of Farnham and Geryk to discuss the acrimony surrounding the superintendency union.
In a subsequent email addressed to Hajir and sent to every member of the Regional School Committee, Rob Spence, an Amherst representative, wrote, "I think this is an inappropriate time to schedule a Union 26 meeting. ... I find this particularly inappropriate, especially that the Amherst School Committee chair was not consulted."
In the exchanges, Amherst member Rick Hood suggested that they might be in breach of state Open Meeting Law. A copy of the state attorney general's "Open Meeting Law Guidelines" posted on the department's website said that, "like private conversations held in person or over the telephone, email conversations among a quorum of members of a governmental body that relate to public business violate the Open Meeting Law." The Gazette had not received confirmation of the potential breach of law from the Northwestern district attorney's office as of press time.
Also on May 8, Farnham replied, "I would like to clarify that Irv specifically requested that I call a meeting of Union 26 and asked me to do this as soon as we possibly could."
Rhodes argued that contention, saying that while he had asked Farnham to talk to the Pelham School Committee about scheduling a Union 26 meeting as soon as possible, he had not wanted a Union 26 meeting without consultation with his town's full committee and its attorney.
"After reading this email I am shocked and saddened by your liberal use of what you consider facts," Rhodes wrote to Farnham in a message also sent to other members of the regional committee. "One thing is for sure, I will never ever meet with you without other witnesses present. ... Please stop spreading falsehoods and start taking responsibility for your misguided actions."
That drew a response from Geryk on May 10, who wrote to Irv and the group, "Irv, this email is extremely irresponsible. I am embarrassed by the conversation you are pursuing and request that we all be mindful of the language and tone that we use. ... Please remember that (School Committee) emails are considered public record."
Geryk and Rhodes continued their back-and-forth, copied to the group, while Farnham never directly responded to the accusations.
A highly charged Regional School Committee meeting followed on May 11, in which Amherst members blasted Hajir for allowing Union 26 onto the regional agenda. At the time, Amherst members argued they could not discuss the matter of the union until they had time to consult with an attorney. Pelham members argued they just wanted to have a conversation about the Amherst committee's concerns.
Ultimately, the Union 26 committee voted to adjourn before even taking up the subject. Hajir argued that the two bodies share the cost of a superintendent and, as such, a change to one school board would impact the other.
"First of all, it is very commonplace to have joint meetings of region and Union 26, and the reason is that we cooperate together to hire a superintendent," Hajir said in a phone interview Tuesday. "If there are discussions to changes to Union 26 ... then that impacts the region because the region would have to share its superintendent with another configuration of school committees, such as the Pelham School Committee and the Amherst School Committee separately."
Hajir also argues that as the respective chairs of their committees, he and Farnham have the authority to call a joint meeting.
Rhodes disagrees. "He overstepped his bounds, and he knew it," Rhodes said. "Union 26 is Union 26, and it does not include the region."
Farnham said the meeting was scheduled quickly because the Pelham School Committee voted to authorize its Union 26 representatives to meet with Amherst's Union 26 representatives on May 6. To ensure that Union 26 was added to the regional agenda for the May 11, arrangements had to be made quickly to have the meeting posted in time, Farnham said.
Catherine Sanderson, an Amherst member, said she understands Rhodes sensitivity to the subject.
"Irv was trying to represent the Amherst School Committee's wishes, which is his role as chair, and Farshid, Tracy and Maria all knew that the Amherst School Committee members did not want to have this discussion during a regional meeting at this time."