The candidates’ statements and answers to the Indy’s questions were helpful and revealing. As with the statements of Town Council candidates, while there were many shared values, there were significant differences in priorities. It may be priorities, even more than values, which set the direction for our elementary and regional schools.
One question, though, which was addressed obliquely by several candidates, but never directly, seemingly arises from our current crisis, although it has arisen before both directly and indirectly.
The question really has two parts: first, what, in general, ought to be the relationship between the school committees and the superintendent? And, second, ought school system attorneys be the silent partners in school leadership that they appear to be right now?
When I arrived in Amherst in 1970 to become principal of Mark’s Meadow School, the school districts had a very strong, opinionated and brilliant superintendent who dominated the school committee decisions, and the committee didn’t much like it. In the mid-70s a new superintendent was hired, and the school committees let him know that he was “their” man in terms both of policy and leadership. Since then, the relationship has fluctuated, based largely upon the personalities involved.
Part of our current crisis seems resolved – there seems to be little dispute about what happened at the Middle School and who was directly responsible for it. But a large issue is unresolved and that has to do with the relationship between the superintendent (enlarged to include the Central Office) and the school committees. Putting aside for the moment issues of possible negligence or culpability, it is quite likely, in my view, that the ambiguities involved in the school committee/superintendent relationship played a substantial role in the crisis and the miasma surrounding it.
The School Committee we elect on November 7, will select the new superintendent. Voters need to know candidates’ views on this relationship. So do applicants for the position.
It is no simple question, and voters should be suspicious of simple answers. But it would be good to know candidates’ thoughts on this relationship before we vote.
As to the attorneys, avoiding litigation and defending against it is their job, and these days it is an important job. Still, it is not clear which is the tail and which is the dog as the School Committees and Superintendent consider the leadership of the school districts and their responsibility to the Amherst community.
Perhaps candidates could use the comments space below to share their thoughts.
Michael Greenebaum was Principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education. He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993, and served on several town committees including the Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.