Report on the Special Town Council Meeting with Remaining School Committee Members, September 18, 2023
This meeting was the second of three meetings held by the Town Council on September 18. It was a hybrid meeting and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
In Town Hall: Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Jennifer Taub (District 3), Pam Rooney (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5), Mandi Jo Hanneke and Andy Steinberg (at large). Michele Miller (District 1), Anika Lopes (District 4), Dorothy Pam (District 3), Shalini Bahl-Milne (District 5), and Ellisha Walker (at large) participated remotely, as did remaining School Committee members Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes.
Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)
Interview Questions For Interim School Committee Candidates
After considerable discussion, the following eight questions were selected for the interviews scheduled for Tuesday, September 26 at 6 p.m. Each candidate will be given two minutes to answer each question and will also make an opening and closing statement of no more than two minutes.
- The School Committee is expected to collaborate with, and hold the Superintendent accountable, at the same time. How would you approach this dual role to achieve the best outcomes for students?
- Tell us about an experience you have had collaborating with a group, particularly where opinions were in conflict or the decision was controversial.
- Please share how you have responded to criticism in the past.
- What role can you play to help ensure that the School Committee’s practices, processes, and decisions are equitable, antiracist, and welcoming to people of diverse gender identities and ethnic backgrounds?
- The schools and the town have stated commitments to end structural racism and achieve equity for all students. What role can you play to uphold these commitments and achieve equity for all students?
- What do you think is one strength and one area for improvement in Amherst Elementary and Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools?
Over the next three months, the School Committee will need to set up a search for a superintendent and begin the budget process. As you respond to the next two questions, please include what skills, knowledge and experience you will bring to the School Committee that will help the committee:
- identify, recruit, and hire a high-quality candidate who understands the needs of our districts?
- at the start of the budget process?
Controversy Over Questions
Most of the discussion centered around questions 3, 4, and 5. Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) wondered whether question 3 referred to personal criticism or criticism of the School Committee (SC) as a whole. Dorothy Pam (District 3) suggested that there was only one way to answer the question—that the candidate would listen, check to see if any of the criticism is true, and evaluate their behavior.
The remaining SC members, Jennifer Shiao and Irv Rhodes, pointed out that the situation the town is in has resulted from the resignation of three SC members who cited “negative public feedback” as a major reason for their resignation. ShIiao and Rhodes felt the question is important, with Rhodes saying, “How do you respond when you’re in a situation— do you resign? Do you quit? Do you leave the body? You are in the public arena. You are going to be criticized.”
Councilor Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said she struggled with the question because of the recent resignations. She said she didn’t think candidates’ answers would be helpful “except to possibly give permission to a continuation of public bullying, which I think we need to address as a community.” Councilor Andy Steinberg (at large) thought the question would be more relevant if the candidates were going to be elected for a full term, rather than for a three-month interim position. Ultimately, the question was reworded and accepted.
Questions 4 and 5 were originally options for a single question that would gauge the candidate’s commitment to the town’s resolution to end structural racism (Question 5) and to respond to the gender discrimination at the Middle School over the past year (Question 4). Councilor Michele Miller (District 1) noted that at the September 11 Town Council meeting, a councilor (Cathy Schoen) said that asking about antiracist practices, which was in a question then, was like saying “stop beating your husband or wife.” Miller said, “I believe that was a violation of Rule 6 of the council’s Rules of Procedure [civility and respect], and I would ask that we as a council refrain from making comments like that that could evoke strong feelings in some members of the council and the public.”
Most of the discussion centered around how specific the questions should be with regard to types of discrimination. Rhodes wanted antiracism and structural racism to be defined, while others thought the interpretation should be left up to what those terms mean to the candidate.
Public Comment Will Be Allowed At The Interviews
Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) stated that she expects the council to complete the interviews and select the three interim SC members at the September 26 meeting, no matter how long the meeting lasts. Several councilors expressed concern that they would be deliberating on the candidates late into the evening. Some worried that public comment would extend the length of the meeting. Steinberg was concerned that public comment might include expressions of support for specific candidates who might be running in the November election, which could be seen as electioneering.
However, Shiao and Rhodes were emphatic that the process of selecting the interim candidates should be open and transparent and that the public should be allowed to comment both in person and by email. Rhodes said, “We should not let the fear of electioneering prevent us from doing what is right.” Hanneke suggested that the comment period be after the interviews and before the deliberation, but this was not accepted.
The group decided to encourage the public to submit comments prior to the meeting through the Town Council link. Council Clerk Athena O’Keeffe will post the comments one hour prior to the September 26 meeting. The link to the comments will be placed in the packet for the meeting.
Then Steinberg suggested limiting public comments to one minute each, but Griesemer said she will see how many people want to make comments and adjust the time limit accordingly, which is the usual process for council meetings.
Process For The Interview Meeting
All registered voters who submitted their applications by September 20 are eligible for the vacant SC positions, whether they are running for full terms in November or not. Griesemer will ask the questions, rotating which person goes first. The councilors and SC members will keep their own notes and vote for their top three candidates. If all members are present at the meeting, a candidate must receive eight votes to be selected. It may take several ballots to have three candidates get a majority of the votes.
This special meeting was adjourned at 9:33p.m. The September 26 meeting will start at 6 p.m. Statements of interest from the candidates will be posted on the town website on September 22.