The following letter was sent to the Amherst School Committee, the staff at Amherst Public Schools, and a several local media outlets on October 31, 2022
I recently retired after 34 years of working as an educator, thirty of them in Massachusetts. The last ten years of my career were devoted to the service of students in the Amherst Regional Public Schools (ARPS). Four of my five children graduated from Amherst Regional High School (ARHS). The investment, commitment, and trust that moved me to work for ARPS were rooted deep in my heart and soul.
At the beginning of my tenure in ARPS, the educational quality, staff appreciation, and communication with administration that I had come to know as a parent were evident in my position as a teacher, interim principal, and interim assistant principal. Unfortunately, for the past four years, I have seen the district degrading and corroding from within.
The first sign of negative change I witnessed was a shift in the interview process. Presumably, the change was made in order to make the hiring process more equitable and accessible to candidates of color. As a Puerto Rican woman, I have worked over my lifetime to make classrooms more accessible and inclusive while reaching out to parents in a culturally sensitive manner. Diversity of the educator workforce is near and dear to my heart. Despite my background and commitments, I noticed troubling issues. Previously, there was one interview committee, composed of administrators, teachers, and parents who, as a team, selected candidates to interview utilizing all the information required (such as cover letter, resumes, and references).
About five years ago, a new interview process was introduced. There are now two separate teams; the first team only looks at resumes and selects candidates to interview, and the second team interviews the candidates without ever seeing the resumes. Administrators with access to School Spring (the job search platform for schools) are the only ones with access to the resumes of these candidates. The interview team must rely only on the candidate’s answers to the questions, which are prescribed, pre-written questions. The interview team does not have any information to fall back on or to compare to ascertain if these answers are valid or not. I have interviewed, and been interviewed, many times, and have learned that there are many things that can interfere with an answer to a question. This includes, but is not limited to, perspective, cultural, language, or regional communication differences, understanding of the question, expectations of the interviewers and other multiple possible misunderstandings. How can a candidate be chosen by a team with only one, 45-minute interview, without any prior knowledge of the education or experience of the candidate? This process does not follow best practices nor is it in line with the research of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), recruitment, hiring, and retention. For example, many institutions redact the name, address, and age of candidates to reduce conscious and unconscious bias, but the resume and cover letter remain important documents to illustrate answers regarding relevant experience against.
I have experienced the failure of this hiring process numerous times on a personal level. With more than 30 years of experience as an educator, I hold six teaching licenses, including administration K-12, special education, and elementary education. I have taught in elementary and secondary settings, in urban and suburban schools, in inclusion special education settings, as well as in substantially separate special education settings. I have been an administrator at both the elementary and secondary levels. Furthermore, I am bilingual and bicultural, having grown up in Puerto Rico and having lived in Massachusetts since 1988. I know and understand the school system, and am specifically familiar with the complex local cultural context of Amherst and of Western Massachusetts.
Despite my demonstrated experience and excellent evaluations, I applied, interviewed, and was subsequently turned down for six administrative positions in the ARPS district. After each interview process for the various administrative positions for which I applied, I requested feedback from Human Resources so that I could improve as a candidate. I was told to send an email to set up a meeting. I sent multiple emails, but I never received replies. To this day, I still have not been given feedback nor told why I was not selected as a finalist for these positions, though I had all the qualifications, and in many instances, was more experienced and qualified than other candidates. This hiring process was purportedly developed to create more access and equity for candidates of color, yet white non-Hispanic candidates were selected (one of whom was not yet licensed) in four of the six positions for which I applied.
My belief that my track record of dedication and professionalism would help support the high standards and educational quality of ARPS, was rejected without feedback and impacted my confidence in the objectivity and legality of the hiring and promotion system. Adding to the injustice of my treatment, I witnessed several of my colleagues being terminated from their positions, allegedly for lack of an appropriate state license, while the people who replaced these colleagues themselves lack the appropriate licensure for the positions. In several of these cases, the new hires were non-Hispanic white people, and my colleagues were Latinas.
A culture of fear pervading the district prevents staff members from publicly stating their shared observations, namely that the changes in the hiring process are being ignored by the same administrators who established it. Nepotism and corruption are now rampant in the district. It is widely known that administrators without the appropriate qualifications and licenses have been hired without being subject to the hiring process. It is also known that family members of top administrators have been hired for positions in the district. In one now infamous instance, a staff member was hired without the qualifications required according to the published job announcement, and without a Bachelor’s degree, yet this hire is earning an administrator’s salary. In this case, other staff members lacking a Bachelor’s degree did not apply for a position that interested them, respecting the established qualifications required. Little did they know that being the closest relative to an administrator charged with hiring was the de facto requirement for the job.
In addition, there are politically favored staff members who have been granted professional status in the district within their first year of work. This is a process which usually takes three years and includes positive evaluations by the building administrators. It is an insult to the many highly qualified teachers who have worked hard for their professional status to use it as a favor granted for personal loyalty without regard for dedication and professionalism. There are a number of teachers who are working in the schools without licensure, although five years ago, there was a push for all teachers and administrators to have appropriate, up to date certification, preferably with a Masters Degree. Shielded by a purported effort to create a more diverse staff, and lacking a grounding in the best practice of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, administrators are utilizing hiring and promotion as a personal kitty to distribute favors among family members, friends, and employees who will not challenge this corruption. Furthermore, racial and ethnic division are exacerbated by such gross misuse of social justice terminology coupled with individual favoritism. An audit of the district will reveal that the numbers of qualified teachers of color do not match the proportion of our students per individual racial and ethnic group. Excellence must always accompany diversity or we risk making a mockery of both.
I have observed, and colleagues have witnessed the Director of The Office of Diversity, Equity, and Human Resources make unilateral hiring decisions, even opposing principals’ wishes. One example of this was the hiring of a new principal for Fort River School (SY 2020-2021). The principal was hired without having to go through the regular hiring process. This resulted in a fast failure; by October of 2020, the staff spoke up and was nearing a vote of no confidence. The principal left, leaving the school too quickly to secure a replacement. In another example (SY 2020-2021) at a different school, a beloved staff member in the fourth year working for the district, was going to be terminated by the principal, despite good evaluations, years of experience, letters from parents, and the support of his colleagues. In yet another example, co-principals were hired against the wishes and feedback of most of the staff at Amherst Regional Middle School when I was a staff member there (SY 2018-2019). The faculty and staff were told that based on their feedback, they hired two principals to work together, despite the fact that many staff members gave unfavorable feedback. These two principals didn’t know each other. It was a disaster from which the middle school is still recuperating and they both left by the end of SY 2020.
Meanwhile, in more than one school, the principal’s ability to make staffing decisions about their own school have been curtailed and controlled. They have been told explicitly that they cannot terminate people who are in specific positions. These practices fly in the face of all administrative protocols and procedures for staffing.
All of this is happening while the Human Resources staff continues to work remotely, though every other staff member in the district was expected to return to their physical workplace after remote learning ended in June of 2021. This makes it difficult for staff or potential candidates to reach anyone in the Human Resources office, delaying processes or issues that could be easily resolved with their physical presence. In yet another example of an inequitable practice, some favored staff members are allowed to work from home and be physically in their offices once a week, yet other staff members who ask to do so are told it is not allowed.
As we know, people do not usually go into teaching for the money; they do it for the love of the profession and their students. I have always taken pride in my work as an educator. I have loved teaching my students and watching them learn, grow, and change in positive ways. It has been my life’s work. However, the toxic nature of the central administration of the Amherst Public Schools ultimately overpowered my love of the classroom, and I made the decision to retire early.
I still have many great former colleagues working in the Amherst schools, and I am dismayed and upset that more of the same stories continue to surface. Teachers do not feel supported by central administration/Human Resources. The staff is not united. Many feel fear, a lack of motivation to continue to work hard, and an absence of genuine caring on the part of the central office. It is my fear that teachers will continue to look elsewhere for positions if these inequitable hiring and staffing practices continue. Educators are the backbone and pride of Amherst’s schools, and the schools cannot afford to lose any more highly qualified people.
I beseech you to investigate, interview staff members anonymously away from school grounds, and review all hiring processes, beginning now. Our children’s futures depend on the quality of their education and educators require respect, fairness, and that administrators follow Massachusetts General Law and MA DESE Regulations in all of their work and activities.
Martha Toro is a retired teacher who lives in Amherst