Report On The Joint Meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee And The Union 26 School Committee, August 23, 2023
The meeting was held over Google Meeting and was recorded. The meeting began at 5:30 p.m.. The Regional School Committee (RSC) and Union 26 School Committee (henceforth referred to collectively as SC) adjourned immediately into executive session and returned to open meeting at about 8:20 p.m. The meeting concluded at 10:30 p.m.
Sarabess Kinney (Acting chair, Regional School Committee, Pelham), Peter Demling (Chair, Union 26 School Committee, Amherst), Ana Heard (Amherst), Tom Fanning (Pelham), Jennifer Shiao (Amherst), Irv Rhodes (Amherst), Tilman Wolf (Leverett), Margaret Stancer (Pelham). Absent: Allison McDonald (Amherst)
Seventy-seven members of the public attended the meeting at its peak and since people came and went throughout the five-hour meeting, especially during the nearly three-hour executive session break, a greater number of unique individuals actually participated.
- The SC met in executive session (ES) for nearly three hours to approve the minutes of the ES session of August 17 , when the severance agreement of Superintendent Mike Morris was approved. (Editor’s note: The minutes of the Executive Session where Morris’ severance agreement was approved can be found here. The severance agreement itself can be found here. The settlement was controversial and contested. Read about the deliberations on the agreement in MassLive. The Indy will publish an account of the deliberations next week.)
- Members of the SC clarified why the ES took so long the following day, August 24. Jennifer Shiao reported in her blog that great care was taken to ensure that every detail was correct, and the committee literally went through the minutes word by word. Peter Demling explained,, “Members had many edits, we went through the entire document line by line, then took time at the end to review the final version. The purpose was to have it be as accurate as possible, and to release the approved minutes as soon as possible.”. Irv Rhodes noted that the committee debated whether some content ought to be redacted and in the end redacted nothing. When asked why the committee had not notified the public of the reason for the committee’s long absence, Rhodes responded that members of the committee had asked that the public be informed and the chairs had declined to do so.
- While they waited for the SC to return, the number of people in attendance grew from 40 to at least 77. They became increasingly irritated, expressing disbelief that editing minutes could take so long. They used the chat function on Google Meeting to converse with each other. At least 23 people participated in the chat.
At about 7:50 p.m the Chat function was disabled without an explanation. Queries as to why the chat had been disabled and requests to reestablish it to accommodate people who were not comfortable speaking in public were ignored.
- The open meeting resumed with the return of the SC at about 8:20. The SC did not address the public or explain why they had been away for so long, though they did explain their long absence the following day.
- The SC proceeded to elect new chairs and vice chairs. SarahBess Kenney was elected the Chair of the RSC and Jennifer Shiao the Vice Chair. Irv Rhodes was elected Chair of the Union 26 School Committee and Margaret Stancer the Vice Chair.
- Seventeen people offered public comment in person and another six people and one organization in writing. Most were critical of the SC for their unexplained lengthy absence, for their refusal to schedule a meeting over the summer or to meet in person, for the severance agreement with Michael Morris, and for the perceived lack of significant action to address the safety of LGBTQIA+ students in the Amherst schools. Nearly all asked for a commitment to greater transparency from the SC.
- SC discussed procedures for hiring a new superintendent and agreed that an acting superintendent needed to be brought on immediately because there are many things that the district cannot do without a superintendent, including hiring and firing. The chairs and vice chairs will reach out to Doug Slaughter (the previous acting superintendent) and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents for help in developing a game plan. The goal is to start a national search in January and have the new superintendent on the job by July. They are also hoping that Slaughter will be able to fill in as acting superintendent, at least briefly, though he is also needed to work on a very challenging budget for next year.
- LGBTQ+: Kenney summarized some of the elements of the safety plan proposed by Mike Morris (much of which came from parent Maxine Oland). SC members asked who was responsible for implementation and oversight, and what the timetable would be. No one seemed to know, although Rhodes later said that “school administrators” would be responsible for implementation with oversight from the SC. Wolf asked when the Title IX report would be made available but no additional information was apparently available.
The Discussions & Details
Prior to entering ES, Rhodes noted that the committee was required, by law, to enter executive session to approve the minutes so that they could be shared with the public in their entirety, and that there is no reason to discuss anything else in ES.
At the beginning of the ES, members of the public began to converse using the chat function, which quickly turned into a discussion of their perceptions of contempt and hostility of the SC toward the public. At least 23 individuals discussed a wide range of topics, including the need for the SC to meet in person and the identities of several candidates for school committee in the upcoming elections. As the ES dragged on, the exchanges became testy, clearly manifesting the frustrations of the waiting public, whose members wondered if the SC would indeed come back and why was approval of minutes taking so long. As the clock ticked on, passing one hour, then two, and then two and a half, participants expressed disbelief that the committee could actually be engaged solely in approving minutes. Some complained that if the meeting had been held in person, as had been widely requested, those assembled would have had an easier time engaging with each other while they waited outside.
At about the one-hour mark, Kathleen Traphagen noted in the chat that people trying to get into the meeting were being denied access. Others noted that the administrator of the meeting was in the ES, not monitoring the open meeting. We have no idea how many people were turned away. The host started to admit people from the waiting room again around 7:50 and by the time that the SC returned at 8:15 at least 77 people had been admitted to the meeting. Before that, access to chat was cut off without explanation. Nathaniel Q. requested that the chat be enabled when the SC members returned, to no avail. During public comment others requested that the chat be restored and asked why it had been shut down, but all of these inquiries were ignored.
The Open Meeting
Demling began by reporting that the ES minutes from 8/17 had been approved and were now posted on Board Docs for the meeting.
He then opened nominations for the election of a new chair of the RSC. Shiao and Kenney were nominated. Each spoke briefly in support of their candidacy. Demling, as he has done on previous occasions (see e.g here and here), criticised Shiao harshly, saying that she was too polarizing to serve as chair. Kenney was elected 4-2 with Demling, Fanning, Wolf and Kenney voting for Kenney and Heard and Shiao voting for Shiao, and Rhodes abstaining.
Shiao was then elected vice chair over Wolf by a vote of 5-3, with Demling and Kenney voting for Wolf and Wolf abstaining).
Rhodes then ran unopposed to be the new chair of the Union 26 Committee. He was elected 4-0 with one absent. Margaret Stancer ran unopposed for Vice Chair and was elected 3-0 with one absent and Stancer abstaining.
Seventeen people offered public comment at the meeting. Six people and the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) submitted written public comment.
The full public comments of Maxine Oland, Megan St. Marie, Kairo Serna, and Halley Kelly can be found elsewhere in this issue. Several commenters complained of not being heard or not having their concerns taken seriously. Many ended their remarks ominously with, “We will remember in November.” There were no speakers in support of the SC or of Morris.
M.J. Schwartz opened by reading a long list of names and ages of children 9-17 years old who identified as LGBTAQIA+ and died by suicide. Schwartz is a crisis counselor and said she has heard hundreds of stories like those of the students at the Amherst Middle School who complained about mistreatment. “The fact that you will not hear our statements in a time of crisis is noted. That you care more about the resignation of Michael Morris than the kids who were harmed is noted,” she said.
Maxine Oland, a parent of a rising ninth grader who suffered significant gender discrimination at the Middle School, charged that the district repeatedly violated Title IX and that in spite of her reporting those violations on multiple occasions directly to Morris he did nothing. Her full comment can be found here.
Jena Scwartz said:“I continue to be alarmed, saddened, and angered by the Regional School Committee’s lack of response to what has been and, in my mind, continues to be a crisis in our district. In the wake of the recent resignations, I feel no more assured that anything substantive has changed. We have been asking for an in-person meeting for months. Making public comments on Zoom is not the same as sharing physical space and seeing each other. So being here is both a disappointment and feels like further confirmation that it’s not a priority for you to face the community.
“LGBTQIA+ children suffered on Mike Morris’s watch. As superintendent, he was a mandated reporter who knew about harm to children and chose not to address it, then evaded all responsibility right up until his resignation. The RSC had the power to acknowledge that Morris, as the leader of the district, played a key role in this crisis, and to act accordingly. You chose, again and again, to protect Morris, and in so doing, to protect a status quo that does not put children first. Now, Morris walks away from the district with a clean slate, leaving Amherst taxpayers a hefty price tag for a $50K private investigation, a bloated severance package, two complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, and a narrative — thanks in large part to Peter Demling — that [Morris] ‘put student well-being at the heart of all of his actions’ and that his resignation is sad for the district.”
Megan St. Marie offered 14 urgent questions that the RSC needs to answer. Her questions were echoed by many other speakers and can be found here.
Martha Toro, a retired teacher, said that schools exist because of students and that students have the right to be in a safe environment to learn and grow. It makes no sense, she said, that the last thing on the SC’s mind or in their comments is that students have been hurt. Why so much defense of a superintendent who oversaw the harm rather than the kids who were harmed? The SC, she said, has lost sight of what the goals and the mission of the district is. “It is an insult to the community who have elected you that you suggest that the children and the parents and the staff are lying,” she said.
Jacob Grassi noted that after the chat had been turned off, participants briefly used emoji reactions to speakers until those, too, were turned off. He condemned the format of the meeting and the unwillingness of the SC to engage with the public. “The reaction to the very real harm that has been done to children has been abhorrent,” he said, adding, “A change in leadership is required.”
Emily, a trans student at UMass, said, “I’m really struggling to believe that you have the best interests of kids at heart. I can’t understand how this coverup of the harm to trans students has been able to go on for so long. Morris could have put a stop to it easily. And he did nothing. And you continue to defend him.” “And,” she added, “given that you were not willing to meet with the nearly 80 people here in person, you really should allow them to use the chat.”
John Bonifaz, a constitutional attorney and Amherst parent, said that even before we see the Title IX report, the integrity of the report is suspect. He spoke of an accountability and transparency crisis in the school. (See his article explaining the conflict of interest of the Title IX investigator in the Gazette and Indy). “The very nature of the Title IX investigation makes it hard to have faith in the results and jeopardizes the chances that it will promote healing in the community. Why didn’t the district want a full and impartial investigation?” he asked.
Marethea Wallace, a lifetime Amherst resident, parent of four kids, and an educator, said, “I’m very disappointed in how this situation has been handled. What is happening is not acceptable. I’ve known Mike for a long time but what he has done here is not acceptable. Resigning and taking a six-figure severance is the coward’s way out. You have three hours to deliberate over minutes but not the time to address our concerns. You are not doing your job. You are not doing the right thing. As a voter I will remember.”
School Committee opinions varied when it came to a plan for an acting or an interim superintendent. Heard suggested an interim superintendent “ who can get us to the next hiring cycle.”Demling said that “ we need someone in the role ASAP, ideally on September 1… with a permanent person starting on July 1. We could do an acting [superintendent] for a certain amount of time and then an interim [superintendent].”
Shiao suggested appointing an acting superintendent until January 31 to get through the calendar year and give some time for the next cohort of SC members to decide how to go forward. However, she added, “We need to discuss this right now — what the search process is going to look like – so we’re ready to go on January 1.” She emphasized that it should be a robust process, with lots of representation from different constituencies.”
Reminding the committee that we need to act quickly, Rhodes asked who would replace Finance Director Doug (Slaughter) if he becomes the interim superintendent,as we go into budget season.
Shiao seconded him, saying that there is no time to do a search for an interim superintendent and that the chair needs to talk to Slaughter, who served as acting superintendent during Morris’s recent leave of absence, about whether he would serve and for how long he would serve, and what we might do about the finance director. She also recommended talking to others in the administration about who else might be able to fill the roles of school superintendent or finance director.
Demling said, “We need someone in the position in nine days. Can Doug serve at least minimally as an acting? Who are the other district employees licensed to do the job? The next budget is going to be hard — we’re looking at a six figure deficit with no stimulus funds left over, so who pulls that together?”
Heard asked who is responsible for appointing a new finance person.
Stancer said “We need someone for the full year on the budget— you just can’t fill in. There are two pages of acronyms I had to learn. Have Doug take over [superintendent] for a little bit of time at the beginning and then hire an interim for the year.”
Shiao suggested that the four chairs and vice chairs meet with Slaughter and the Mass Association of School Superintendents to get guidance and come up with a game plan. That group would not constitute a violation of open meeting law, she said.
Stancer wanted the public to know that their comments are not being ignored and said that the SC does have urgent administrative stuff to resolve this evening.
LGBTQ+ Support Update
Kenney described work that has begun in collaboration with the UMass Stonewall center and the MASS Commission on LGBTQ youth for staff and administrator development.Meetings with administrators have happened, she said, and s will receive training the day before school starts and students will receive training on the first day of classes.
She said that harassment and bullying “will be met with serious consequences” but did not indicate what those consequences might be, who would be imposing them, or what kind of process would be used. She noted the pronoun registry that is now active on Google but did not indicate how its use will be enforced in individual classrooms. She noted that there will be a zero tolerance policy for retribution for reporting, but did not elaborate on what would change in order to prevent the reporting problems of last year.
Heard asked how the staff has been informed of their obligations under these guidelines and who will be responsible for implementing the plan. No one could answer.
The meeting adjourned at 10:23.
There were still 68 members of the public present at the end of the meeting, and after SC members had left, participating members of the public were allowed to speak to each other for about two minutes. Halley Kelley was able to make a quick comment just before the mics were cut, and said, ““What an awful showcase of contempt for the Amherst community [this has been].”