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.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Questions Arise Over Amherst Superintendent Search

I'm posting a story that will appear in tomorrow's Gazette on some questions regarding the superintendent search (  I will say I share Irv's concerns about the letter from the Leverett Select Board and find it very unfortunate that they have chosen to engage in such a hostile act. 

I'm surprised that the Leverett Select Board apparently believes the fairest process is to appoint an interim superintendent effective immediately when that person was chosen without a single bit of public comment, at a meeting in which the selection of a superintendent wasn't even on the agenda, and on a vote that was opposed by 80% of the Amherst School Committee members (which represent 75% of the students in the elementary and regional schools).  That hardly seems to me to be the process that is most inclusive of the community. 

The summary of the timeline is as follows:

1.  In March, a superintendent was chosen to serve for 16-months without any opportunity for public comment.  At that time the discussion focused entirely on whether we should immediately search for a permanent superintendent or wait a few months;  no one on the SC suggested this might be a permanent appointment.

2.  In July, the SC discussed plans for starting on the search, as planned.  Only one person (Kip Fonsch, from Leverett) suggested cancelling the search;  no one agreed with this idea.

3.  In August, the SC discussed moving ahead with the search (no one disagreed, although Kip wasn't there).

4.  In September, the SC discussed (on a surprise motion by Kristen Luschen from Shutesbury) calling off the search and appointing the interim permanently.  The motion to call off the search failed 4 to 5. 

5.  In October and November, the SC met with HYA, held numerous focus groups, received over 400 responses to an on-line survey, and developed a time line.  That time line involved holding interviews on the 18th/19th/20th and choosing a finalist on the 20th.  We also developed (and agreed by consensus) membership on the search committee:  3 SC members (representing each committee), two teachers, two parents, and a government official.

6.  In November, Kip requested that we make several changes to the search committee;  adding members from Leverett and Shutesbury, adding an administrator, allowing teachers to choose their own representatives.  We made ALL of those changes in order to increase the community's voice in the selection.  At no time did the SC even discuss allowing the school committees of Leverett and Shutesbury to select their own town's representative. 

7.  In January, the search committee met three times to review and interview the candidates.  This was an active and thoughtful group of people who took this job VERY seriously.  I appreciated the insights of each person and believe that we all approached this task with an open mind and focused entirely on kids.  We chose 3 finalists.

8.  Concerns were raised about not having adequate time to gather feedback on the two outside finalists, so Rick switched the schedules around so that we would have 24 hours after seeing Dr. Kohn (and 48 hours after seeing Dr. Bayless) to get feedback from the community.  Again, this change was done to allow for more gathering of feedback and reflection on the two outside candidates, which seems entirely appropriate (since the community and the committee obviously has much more extensive knowledge about the internal candidate).   

Now, after all of this time, we are hearing that the process is unfair because the Leverett SB (who has no say whatsoever in the selection of a superintendent) wanted a different person from Leverett on the search committee.  In addition, they would like me, Nora, and Rick to resign because we developed this process, and they would like the interim to be appointed permanent superintendent (which they somehow feel allows for much more community voice in this selection, although I find it hard to believe that many Amherst residents have contacted the Leverett Select Board with their thoughts about the qualifications they'd like to see in a superintendent and/or their thoughts about Ms. Geryk).  I find this all very discouraging.

I believe we all have to focus not on politics, but on education for kids in our schools.  A thoughtful search committee (including parents, teachers, a SB member from Shutesbury) has selected three finalists to bring to our community.  I believe we as a community owe it to these three finalists to treat them with respect and to get to know them.  There are two public forums each day in which these candidates will respond to questions, there is extensive information from the candidates themselves (essay responses, background summary) on the web, and there will be two lengthy interviews (which can be seen live on the web and/or in person).  The community will have multiple times to give input, and that input will be seriously considered (along with the extensive other input the SC will have, including more extensive biographical data and many references).

I believe we all need to focus on selecting the very best superintendent to lead our community, and this can only occur if all members of the community approach this process with a fair and open mind, and do not prejudge any of the finalists without even meeting them or attempt to sabotage the long-established process.  I hope members of all four towns will join me in engaging in a fair and objective process this week and vow to fully support whoever is chosen as our next superintendent.  I didn't vote for Dr. Rodriguez in the last search, and I was disappointed when my preferred candidate, Dr. Sklarz, wasn't chosen.  But from the moment the SC made its decision, I vowed to work collaboratively with Dr. Rodriguez, and I believe we had a very good relationship throughout his time in Amherst.  I believe all members of the SC, and all community members, need to have the same commitment to supporting our next superintendent, whoever that person is.  We owe our kids this much, and I have to believe that all of us must share the same goal of choosing the best person to provide our kids with the excellent education they deserve. 


Abbie said...

A couple of comments wrt to Leverett's Select Board outrageous action.

(1) I could find no SB meeting that occurred recently where they could have discussed this matter either in open session (or closed, which would be illegal). While I am no expert in open meeting laws, it seems that they must have reached this decision in private by phone or email- isn't this illegal?

(2) I am disappointed that there is no reply from Ms. Geryk in the article- either the Gazette didn't contact her or she refused to comment. It seems appropriate (to me) that she would endorse the open and ongoing search process and would criticize this interference for her benefit.

(3) What the heck!! Leverett is currently considering forming a k-8 district, correct? While doing this, and potentially having in the future fewer than 100 kids in ARPS, they would try to derail the process UNILATERALLY with less than 5% of the kids in the system?

I could certainly appreciate moving the final decision by one week, but to stop the process and essentially anoint Ms. Geryk is simply outrageous and Leverett should be ashamed of their unethical action.

Anonymous said...

It is unfortunate Leverett Select Board got involved but sometimes you just gotta say it is what it is and move forward.

However, I do think the process is a bit rushed and I hope that the SC does not feel like it needs to make a decision on Thursday if any member does not feel they have enough information to make that decision. I know there has been talk about if we don't hurry up and make a choice we may lose candidates. My reply to that is if any of the candidates feel that they cannot give us time to make a thoughtful choice in this very important decision then they do not sound very committed to us in the first place. This is such a critical decision, the schools are at such a critical crossroads that the SC MUST get this right. So, please choose wisely and do not feel that you must be rushed. And I hope ALL SC members will keep an open mind about ALL candidates. In my mind this is one of the most important decision the SC will make in many months, if not years. Please, take the time to get it right.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Abbie - I share your concern about the Leverett SB's action, and you raise an interesting question as to how/when this letter was composed.

Anonymous 2:14 - I think there are a few important issues you raise. First, the SC has more information about the candidates than the public (we have full resumes with lots of details, multiple letters of recommendation, etc.), and we are contacting many references for each. Thus, the information the SC already has is more extensive than the information the public has.

Second, even very interested and dedicated candidates are interested in finding jobs -- and they have been told that they will be told the results of our search on the 20th (they've been told this for 2 months). Given the travel schedules of some members, a vote would have to be postponed until at least January 31st ... and in that 11 day period, one or both of the external candidates could receive another offer that requires them to act. The last time we did this search one of the finalists pulled because that person had been offered a job in another district, and although that person was clearly interested in this job, they didn't feel they could turn down an actual job for a potential job. I fear that we may well experience a similar situation in this case, in which one or both of the outside candidates receives another offer and is forced to pull out of our search. I fear that that result would be VERY bad for our community as we've spent a long time on this search to make sure we find the best person to serve as superintendent - and if we lose any of the finalists, that really calls into question our ability to give the community a chance to see finalists with distinct experiences, backgrounds, and visions for our district.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I believe that the community will have 24 hours after seeing the last outside finalist to share the views, and the SC will seriously consider those views (along with the more detailed info all the members of the SC will have). I do not see what we have to gain by delaying the vote, and I can certainly see what we could lose.

Anonymous said...

Why does none of this surprise me? Of course some contingent of our community would try to derail the process for their own gain. It seems to me that Leverett is trying to ensure that their inside candidate gets the job. If we behave like petulant children during the hiring process no one outside of here would want to take the job. I believe they know this and are acting accordingly to 'scare off' the competition and pave the way for the inside candidate to get the job. What they don't seem to understand is that by playing these games all they really do is undermine their candidate. If she is really the one for the job she should be able to stand up in a clear, open and civilized process and be the hands down best choice.

Anonymous said...

I also want to note that I will not post any remarks that comment (positively or negatively) on any of the three finalists

Then you might want to remove that part of Abbie's comment that engages in completely baseless speculation about Maria Geryk's non-appearance in the article you posted.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 4:45 - I assume that if Ms. Geryk chose not to comment, the paper would have noted that, so I see Abbie's critique as one of the newspaper article, and not of the current interim superintendent.

Anonymous said...

That's very generous of you, but Abbie's post strongly implies that Maria has somehow failed to appropriately respond to the Leverett Select Board's action.

Anonymous said...

Your response deals adequately with the first sentence of Abbie's comments #2. But how the second sentence? Do you not see any negative implications
in it?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 7:31 - I believe all candidates should support a fair and open search in which all finalists are treated with respect and courtesy and following the process set out by the SC several months ago. I agree with Abbie's point completely. Surely Dr. Bayless, Dr. Kohn, and Ms. Geryk all would only like to be chosen in a process that was fair and objective towards all three finalists, in that this process will lead to greater community support for the decision and for the superintendent. That is why I find the actions of the Leverett SB so unfortunate. We need to keep in mind that this selection is about what is best for the students in our schools - now and in the future. I have every confidence that this will be the focus of all 10 SC members when they vote.

Anonymous said...

I support delaying the decision for one week to make sure that I - and others who can attend the community meetings and those who can't - have time to think through the issues and offer feedback to the school committee. Having the school committee vote this week, immediately after the community meetings, doesn't seem fair.

Hold on! we just received a phone call rescheduling the candidates because of weather, Bayliss: Wed, Kohn: Thursday and Maria Geryl "sometime in the future". I have to say I feel that we don't give Ms. Geryk the same respect as the other candidates, which I feel is wrong.

Anonymous said...

If we are serious about giving the community a good opportunity to have feedback on candidates, I think 24 hours is not enough time. (i.e. 24 hours after the last meeting). I also think the fact the school committee has more information on the candidates is not a good enough rationale to only give the community 24 hours, since one of our concerns is to make sure the community has a chance to give meaningful feedback. We need more time. Thanks for fighting for us to get it.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 7:51 - two of the finalists have plane tickets and hotels; they need to be scheduled this week so we don't have to pay for new tickets/hotels. One of the finalists doesn't. I believe Rick and Irv and Debbie made a very good decision to make sure that the outside candidates are coming in this week. It isn't clear when Maria's schedule allows her to come, and that will take a bit of time to schedule. But it would have been awful for parents/community members to show up at 8 am tomorrow AM and then find the event was cancelled, so the decision had to be made fast (before the third visit could be rescheduled).

Anonymous 7:53 - given the weather issue, there will now be at least a week between the outside finalists' interviews and the selection of a superintendent. I hope that gives everyone plenty of time to share their thoughts.

One more note: it is VERY hard to coordinate schedules of 10 SC members (many with hectic work schedules) ... it would have been very helpful if those with concerns about the timing of the vote had of made those concerns known earlier (the schedule was announced in November, yet we heard absolutely no complaints until January, after the finalists were announced).

Ed said...

Abbie is right -- and the classic example is when the Town of Sunderland wanted to hire Chip Thrasher as police chief, but then decided that he couldn't also be a UMPD officer as well. The state made them re-hold the meeting...

Now what *is* legal -- and maybe should be considered -- is allowing a couple of members to vote via telephone conference. You put a speakerphone on the table and the person's name in front of it, and then you go from there.

And as to all of these hilltown antics, I am thinking that Amherst should have its own K-12 district and say "ENOUGH FOOLISHNESS" to the hilltowns. Let them form their own unions with whomever they want, Amherst is not involved anymore...

Ed said...

and on a vote that was opposed by 80% of the Amherst School Committee members (which represent 75% of the students in the elementary and regional schools)

I say again -- there is a very serious violation of the Federal Voting Rights Act here -- and a friend in DC confirmed that I am reading the law correctly.

Ed said...

And as to the Leverett School Committee -- they got sorta mentioned in the Boston Herald today;

Anonymous said...

Any chance you'd like to comment on the selection of Eva Rosenn, the Leverett parent/representative on the finalist selection committee? She is a member of ACE, the political action/parent organization group you founded. Did you recruit her for the committee? Did you disclose your connection to her to the other SC members who selected this group?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Anonymous 11:11 - three things.

First, the ACE group isn't a group ... it is a bunch of people who signed a letter 3 years ago. We've never met as a group. Lots of people signed the ACE letter - Clare Bertrand, Baer Tierkel, Stephanie Gelfan, Irv Rhodes, etc. I believe I've met Eva once - we aren't friends, I've never been to her house, she's never been to my house.

Second, three people applied from Leverett to serve. One of them had no kids in the regional schools (2 kids in the elementary schools), one had 1 kid who had been in the regional schools for a few months (and a younger kid), and one had a current ARHS student and a child who had just graduated from ARHS (and thus extensive experience with the regional schools). We chose the one with the most experience in the schools - which was Eva Rosenn.

Third, there were 10 people on the search committee ... even if one of those people hadn't been on and there was a different person on, the vote wouldn't have been different.

Let's focus on the fact that there are three finalists who have been brought to town, and we should be focusing on getting to know them and figuring out which person is the best fit for leading our district forward. This is about the kids in our schools ... and it is a very important decision.