TOWN AND SCHOOL DISTRICT OFFICIALS, EMPLOYEES TO FILL MOST SEATS ON NEW SCHOOL BUILDING COMMITTEE

Wildwood School. Photo: Art Keene

RESIDENT SLOTS STILL OPEN: OFFICIAL PREFERENCE FOR PARENTS OF YOUNG CHILDREN DRAWS CRITICISM

By Marla Goldberg-Jamate and Art Keene  

Formation of the influential new Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) got underway this week, amid conflict over the Town Manager’s criteria for choosing community volunteers. 

Eight Town Councilors vied for two seats on the ESBC during an internal election and meeting on June 15, eventually leading to selection of Stephen Schreiber (District 4) and Cathy Schoen (District 1). Their names were recommended to Town Manager, Paul Bockelman, while the Amherst School Committee chose on June 16 to recommend Ben Herrington as its ESBC representative.

Recent debate over community slots on the ESBC has centered around a Committee Charge issued by Bockelman on June 10.  That charge states that for two or three resident openings, “preference will be given to parents/guardians of young children who may be in the elementary schools in five years.”

At a June 15 meeting of the Town Services & Outreach Committee (TSO), Town Councilors Darcy DuMont, Dorothy Pam, and Alisa Brewer criticized the language as too limiting, and pointed to the value of having some volunteers on the ESBC who have experience of the schools. 

Brewer said the language about a preference “kind of clanged with me”

and added that the ESBC’s role is not to establish an educational program, which is the School Committee’s responsibility. 

Brewer said that volunteers should be prepared to take on “homework” associated with serving on the ESBC. 

Pam described the language about childrens’ age as “strange and startling,” and asked that it be changed, adding that it will be important to draw from the knowledge of parents with children in school now. Bockelman said the language was meant to attract people with “skin in the game,” people whose children will use the school. 

Bockelman, Schools Superintendent Michael Morris, and a member of the Residents’ Advisory Committee will participate in interviews of the applicants. 

At this time, only four community applicants to the committee have made their names public: Jennifer Page, Katie Ladzowski, Irene Dujovne, and Bill Kaizen. 

DuMont said she is concerned that the Committee Charge was created late, given that a list of appointees is due to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) on June 30.

Bockelman said he recognized that outreach for volunteers wasn’t as robust as it could have been, and said that the Town would do more. He said he will submit the names of town officials to serve on the ESBC to the Massachusetts School Building Authority  (MSBA) by June 30. The state agency is willing to accept the names of community members later, Bockelman said, given the additional burdens municipalities have faced in recent months due to Covid-19.

The TSO, voting 4 to 1, approved Bockelman’s recommendation that the following municipal officials and employees serve on the ESBC: himself, School Superintendent Michael Morris, Fort River Principal Diane Chamberlain, Wildwood Vice Principal Allison Estes, Schools’ Facilities Director Rupert Roy-Clark, Town Finance Director Sean Mangano, and Town Procurement Officer Anthony Delaney. 

Forthcoming appointments will include a resident with experience in energy-efficient public architecture, engineering, or construction; a teacher or resident with knowledge of educational mission and facilities; and a resident experienced in effective community outreach.

Maria Kopicki, who served as co-chair of the Town-funded Fort River Feasibility Study Committee from 2017 to its completion in 2019, urged Town officials to take the new process very seriously. “The Elementary School Building Committee is one of the most important groups the Town will form. It must navigate the largest capital building project in a town that was ripped apart by the previous one,” Kopicki said, referring to the failure of a former MSBA-approved consolidation project in 2017.  “The process and composition of the committee must be beyond reproach.”

 Kopicki’s full statement can be read here

Resident Toni Cunningham, who served on the Grade Span Advisory Board and is currently part of the Crocker Farm Expansion Feasibility Study group, also spoke to the TSO, stating that two or three community members on the ESBC are not enough.  She also criticized the town for failing to advertise the ESBC openings earlier and more widely. “Ideally, this work would have happened in January or February,” she said. She urged town officials to assure broad representation on the committee, including those who will raise questions. “We don’t need a committee that is there to rubber-stamp a predetermined plan,” she said.

Cunningham’s full statement can be read here.

Appointments to most multi-member bodies are made by the Town Manager under the Home Rule Charter and become effective 30 days after filing with the Town Clerk, unless they are rejected by the Town Council. The Council is next slated to meet on June 29, one day before the proposed committee membership is due at the MSBA. 

Questions remain about whether the town can or should enforce language concerning the age of volunteers’ children, and whether such a preference carries an implication about the age of volunteers themselves. Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 268A Sect. 1G, classifies part-time, uncompensated appointees as “municipal employees.”  Meanwhile, Chapter 151B Section 4 states that it is unlawful for any employer to circulate a statement or application which expresses “directly or indirectly” any limitation regarding age, race, religion, and sexual orientation. 

In a notice seeking volunteers for the ESBC posted on the Town’s website on June 15, the word “preference” is not used. The notice states that the Town will “welcome” parents/guardians of young children who may be in the elementary schools in five years. However, it is unknown if any change to the Committee Charge itself will be forthcoming. 

Bockelman did not respond to questions submitted by the Amherst Indy on  June 12, including whether the Committee Charge was reviewed by the Town’s legal counsel, or to prior questions about whether any residents have been individually recruited by town or school officials. 

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) was contacted by the Amherst Indy.  H. Harrison, assistant to the MCAD commissioners, said the MCAD investigates discrimination complaints and that he can’t be confident, based on the Committee Charge’s description  alone, that it is discriminatory. How a preference is enforced is important, Harrison said, including whether applicants who don’t meet the criteria are considered, and whether a town can provide legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for its ultimate selections. 

If a complaint were to be brought by a rejected applicant over age 40 who was childless, or whose children weren’t within the stated age range, “we would investigate to determine whether unlawful discrimination occurred,” Harrison said.

The eight Town Councilors who expressed interest in being on the committee were Alisa Brewer, Pat DeAngelis, Darcy DuMont, Lynn Griesemer, Mandi Jo Hanneke, Cathy Schoen, Stephen Schreiber, and Andy Steinberg.  However, Griesemer, DeAngelis and DuMont withdrew their names at points during the meeting. The candidates gave statements about their qualifications, and Schoen cited her work on the Finance Committee and Joint Capital Planning Committee. Schreiber mentioned his experience as a local architect, noting that an architect should serve on the ESBC. 

Schoen was selected as a Town Councilor serving on the  Finance Committee, which includes a total of five councilors. Schreiber was selected for the other position that must be filled by a Councilor. 

After casting votes for his fellow councilors, Councilor Evan Ross abstained from the final vote to recommend that Bockelman appoint Schoen and Schreiber to the ESBC. Ross said that nomination decisions should rest with the Town Manager, and the Council has other, more pressing business.  Council Sarah Swartz also abstained, but did not state her reason for doing so. 

Maura Keene contributed to this article.

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