School Superintendent Responds To Withdrawal Of Sole Finalist For Middle School Principal

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Amherst Regional Middle School and Amherst Public Schools District Offices. Photo: Amherst Public Schools

School Superintendent Michael Morris informed the Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) Community in a memo dated April 7 that Gabrielle Jackson, resident Principal and Director of Academic Interventions at the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership, and the sole remaining finalist for the principal position at the school, had declined the district’s invitation to make a site visit and had withdrawn from consideration. Tanya Brodd, Superintendent and Director of Special Education at Pointe Educational Services in Phoenix,, Arizona, who had also been designated a finalist, had previously withdrawn to accept a position in another district. Following Brodd’s withdrawal, Morris announced that Jackson would be the sole finalist for the position. That decision produced objections from ARMS teachers and members of the wider community.

Toni Cunningham wrote in the Indy last week:

“Thirty-five middle school educators have signed onto letters sent to the superintendent and School Committee this week citing concerns which include secrecy of the hiring process, restrictions on communications between interview committee members, alleged conflicts of interest between those involved in hiring and candidates, and a claim that a qualified internal candidate was not put forward as a finalist.”

“We have lost confidence in the ARMS principal search process,” wrote Alicia Lopez in a letter co-signed by 28 ARMS educators.

“In another letter signed by 18 educators, teacher Ben Levy wrote, “Since the [interview] committee’s ratings have not been made public, we are not confident that they indicate that only two, but not three of the interviewed candidates should be recommended.”

This is not the first time questions have been raised about the district’s hiring process. Last November, retired teacher Martha Toro published a letter in the Indy which questioned the integrity of the hiring process and leveled accusations of nepotism and corruption in the district. The same process that Toro criticized — which consists of a screening committee that has access to candidate resumes and a separate interview committee that does not — was applied in the recent middle school principal search. Among the pleas from teachers this week was a call for a review of the hiring process.”

“Earlier this week, a letter penned by Claire Cocco and 21 educators called for the internal candidate for the middle school principal position to be added to the finalist pool in time for community forums on March 28, stating the candidate had wide staff support. “

Morris’ memo listed a ranking of the candidates. That listing suggests that the candidate favored by critics was not as competitive as the two finalists.

Morris seemed to suggest that there was an organized campaign to sabotage the candidacy of Jackson.
Morris had rejected the idea of adding the above mentioned internal candidate into consideration following Brodd’s withdrawal. It is not clear how the search will proceed from here. Morris said he would keep the ARMS community informed about next steps.

The full memo follows.


Dear ARMS Community:

I apologize for the length of this email, but I am writing today to share important information about the ARMS Principal search process and provide an update on the current status of the search.

As I have received several questions about the semi-final process, I wanted to review some relevant information.  Four semi-finalists, three external and one internal, were interviewed for the ARMS Principal position.  Three of these four semi-finalists had the years of administrative experience required as per job posting.  Several individuals have asked how the determination was made whether to move a semi-finalist forward as a finalist.  Each member of the interview committee made a recommendation for each candidate either to “hire,” “seriously consider,” “consider,” or “do not consider” the candidate.  Those recommendations were weighted on the following scale: 

hire = 4 points; seriously consider = 3 points; consider = 2 points; do not consider = 1 point

It is important to note that of the nine-member interview committee, in two cases at least one member of the committee did not participate in the interview or subsequent scoring process because of prior connections to the candidate.   In another case, two members of the interview committee were unable to participate because a candidate requested a change of date and time.  As addressed in the finalist interview, Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham did not have any prior connections with the finalists, as has been claimed by some in the community; she also did not vote on any of the semi-finalists.  The average scores were determined using only the input of the participants in each individual’s interview.

Candidate (according to the ratings)Average score (4 point scale)Percentage of interview committee responding “Hire or Seriously Consider”
#12.962.5%
#22.762.5%
#32.033.3%
#41.511.1%

The two highest-rated semi-finalists both listed prior building and district-level administrative experience on their resumes; received ratings of “hire or seriously consider” from more than half of the respondents from their interview committee; and had aggregate scores well above the other two candidates.  As a result, Gabrielle Jackson and Tanya Brodd were invited to become finalists.  Both initially accepted this invitation; just before the finalists’ community forum, Ms. Brodd informed us that she had accepted a position in another district.  We moved forward with Ms. Jackson’s finalist interview as scheduled.

Following Ms. Jackson’s community forum, we sought feedback through an online survey.  I have been made aware that emails and other communications from some community members were sent to large groups of individuals encouraging them to complete the survey and express opposition to Ms. Jackson’s candidacy, regardless of whether they thought she was excellent in the public interview or even if they did not actually watch the interview.  The results of the survey shifted after these communications went out, although the results still showed more responses in favor of Ms. Jackson’s candidacy than those who expressed opposition.  There were also multiple responses that expressed a desire to meet Ms. Jackson to better be able to assess her candidacy.

It was my belief that Ms. Jackson has high potential and deserved fair consideration for the ARMS Principal position.  To that end, we invited Ms. Jackson to make a site visit to ARMS so the community could offer their thoughts about her candidacy with an open mind after meeting her in person. She declined that offer and asked that we share this statement with the ARMS community:

To the Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) Community,

Many thanks to the students and families, teachers, leaders and district administrators for inviting me into your beloved community to share my why, pathways to enhance the foundation that you all have been building and ideas for future collaboration. I believe that the ARMS community has so many positive attributes centered around student success, which will only continue to get stronger over time. One of the things that excites me about ARMS is the passion that you all have for doing what is right and deep-rooted advocacy to ensure that students and teachers have what’s needed for the best possible outcomes. 

While I will not be joining the ARMS community as Principal this summer, I am excited to support the team from afar and look forward to seeing the progress you all make, together.  The ARMS community has the ideas, passion, and determination to make meaningful change and now is the time to stand together, support one another in deep and meaningful ways and build each other up, empowering diversity in thought, voice and ideas.  I challenge the students and families, teachers, and district to come together, without hesitation, and co-create the future that you all want to see for your beloved community in respectful ways. You all have everything you need to thrive and be a model for schools across Western Mass!

I look forward to seeing the progress you make and I’m excited about possible collaboration in the future.

Together In Education,

Gabrielle Jackson
Educator. Activist. Game Changer.

We will provide information in the near future about what the next steps will be in the ARMS principal search process.  Many thanks to those who participated in the process to date.

Sincerely,

Dr. Michael Morris
Superintendent of Schools

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5 thoughts on “School Superintendent Responds To Withdrawal Of Sole Finalist For Middle School Principal

  1. I don’t understand why there’s a negative response to people filling out a feedback form that was meant to collect…feedback?

    why such a disdain for parental input

  2. The email that the superintendent sent was a direct reference to an email I had sent to a group who was devoted to supporting the education as the sought a fair contract. Morris mischaracterized my plea for fairness and transparency as pressure on parents to stop the proceeds. Here’s what I actually wrote:

    “ All the district needs to build trust in the process is to be open about decision makers and decision making…. Please, take a minute of your time, even if you loved the candidate (even if you didn’t watch the candidate) and ask that the search be failed and reopened with a wide-open, non partisan, and honest process that doesn’t gaslight us. We need a middle school principal who will stay more than two years – who understands the value of the educators who have stayed through all the instability to serve and teach our students – and we need one that the educators will support and trust, not one who is forced upon them in a partisan process.”

    The superintendent and the head of HR have taken an aggressive, confrontational tone that does nothing to reassure our educators that they are being heard. Instead of calmly reassuring us that the process and the committee were neutral and unbiased, Ms Cunningham publicly sneered at the educators who asked for transparency, saying that she did not know the candidate prior to the interview, irritably telling the community that “faulty information “ was brought forward. “You and I, although we share the same skin color, have no affiliation.”

    While defensive and not particularly reassuring, the declaration doesn’t touch the question of the conflict of interests within the committee. If the committee was fairly chosen, members should have recused themselves from the entire process when a candidate was known to them personally.

    Instead of “ we appreciate how involved our educators and families are in the process and we want to reassure you of our neutrality “ Ms. Cunningham was defensive and a little pissed off.

    Superintendent Morris egregiously mischaracherized my email deliberately. I asked for an open transparent process that honored the 35 educators who asked for the internal candidate to be included.

    I also wrote and I’ll say it again: “If Ms. Jackson is absolutely the best candidate, then going through an objectively fair process should be of no concern to anyone.”

    Based on the reactive response from Morris, who sought to demean the parent involvement in this public school process, I have even less faith that families and educators will be valued and treated with respect.

    This is a public school, not a fiefdom. My kids are impacted by these choices. Do we want to live in Amherst, terrified to speak up lest we be considered a traitor? No!!! Listen to the more than 30 educators who care so deeply about the school. Bring us candidates who want to lead and support, not those who want to fix a school that is not broken.

  3. I am another parent who filled out the feedback form asking for a fair and transparent search process, and for the requests of the teachers for consideration of the internal candidate to be honored. In the same form, I also said that YES, Ms. Jackson SHOULD be considered. I reject Morris’s assertion that we were in any way encouraged to oppose her candidacy. As Laura Hunter’s quoted email states, we were encouraged to advocate for a fair and transparent hiring process. And regardless of what any email asked or did not ask parents to do, we are all adults and can come to our own decisions about what does and does not constitute a fair and transparent process, and whether or not we support Ms. Jackson’s candidacy. Superintendent Morris, please give parents in this district some credit. We are intelligent enough to make our own evaluations of the situation, and if anyone is at fault, it is you and the district administration for NOT conducting a fair and transparent process, which was evident to anyone who took even a moment to pay attention.

  4. It would be wonderful if Morris and his cronies would finally be ousted. The Thank god our time in ARPS is over.

  5. Based on Superintendent Morris’s memo, some of us at the Middle School would like to clarify that the internal candidate that many of us wanted to see considered as a finalist is a person of color. Half of our leadership team at ARMS are people of color. What we requested was a fair and transparent process.

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