Interim Superintendent Not Forthcoming with Answers to Questions from School Committee


Interim School Superintendent Doug Slaughter, Regional School Committee Chair Sarahbess Kenney, and Leverett representative Tilman Wolf at the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting of November 28, 2023. Photo: YouTube/Amherst Media

Report on the Joint Meeting of Amherst Regional School Committee and Union 26 School Committee, November 28, 2022  Part 1

Read Part 2 of the report here.

The meeting was held in-person in the Amherst Regional High School library and was simulcast by Amherst Media. The recording of the meeting can be viewed here.

Sarahbess Kenney (Amherst Regional School Committee Chair, Pelham); Margaret Stancer (Pelham School Committee Chair); William Scherr (Pelham); Tilman Wolf (Leverett); Anna Heard (Shutesbury); Jennifer Shiao, Katie Lazdowski, Roger Wallace, and Gabriela Weaver (Amherst); David Pinero Jacome and Miguel Pinero Jacome (student representatives). Absent: Irv Rhodes (Chair, Union 26 School Committee)

As was the case with their previous meeting, the School Committees (SC) had several questions for the superintendent that went unanswered, and they noted that some of their questions had gone unanswered for several weeks. This included questions (see below) about bullying, student safety, the superintendent’s response to the reports by investigator Ed Mitnick into harassment of students at the middle school, and the state of fundraising by the Amherst Athletic Booster Club for new athletic fields.

For example, William Sherr said he has been asking since October 3 for the number of bullying incidents that have been documented for this semester so far. Slaughter responded that this information should be “fairly easy to get,” but did not indicate when he will provide it. Katie Lazdowski and Gabriela Weaver expressed concern about the administration’s delayed response to the Mitnick reports, which have been available to the public since November 16. They noted that the public anxiously awaits the district’s response to the findings. Slaughter said, as he has in the past, that his report is “in process” and that he will complete it when he is able to do so. When members of the committee voiced concern that he has not provided answers to their questions over the last several meetings, he pointed out that he is doing two jobs (interim superintendent and finance director), which requires working long hours, and is hard-pressed to keep up with the demands of the jobs.

Meeting Highlights

  • Six members of the public offered public comment
  • Superintendent Search Committee chose a search firm, MacPherson and Jacobson LLC, and clarified aspects of the search timeline
  • Superintendent reported on the appointment of a finance team in lieu of a single finance director
  • Superintendent fielded questions from the SC on a range of issues
  • Regarding theTrack and Field Project: there is money to hire a design firm but not to fund construction. A design firm will likely be selected in the coming weeks and they will probably take 12 months to create biddable plans.
  • The question of whether the new field will be grass or artificial turf is still unresolved. It is unclear who will make that decision as well as how it will be made.
  • A motion was made to rescind the SC’s previous decision to require an artificial turf field, but was tabled until the December 12 meeting of the SC.
  • An update on the Middle School Principal Search revealed the composition of the search committee, a timeline, and concerns about practices that might be carried over from previous problematic searches.

Public Comment 
(note: public comment on the renovation of the track and field at Amherst Regional High School can be found in Part 2 of this report).

Public Comment
John McCabe, Amherst, said that he was grateful that the school investigation reports have been released to the public and encouraged everyone to read them. He said the reports left him with three takeaways.

  1. Hiring by the district should be based on professional qualifications. The district needs policies that actively seek to diversify our workforce in the schools and to hire a workforce that reflects our student body, and that needs to happen now. But it must be done correctly. He noted that some of the worst, most shocking behavior in the reports was on the part of new hires brought in to diversify the workforce.
  1. He decried the failure to document incidents, saying that this hindered the district’s ability to assess and act on what was happening.
  2. He noted that existing district policy calls for holding staff and elected officials to a higher standard. With that in mind, he supports the complaints brought by Union 26 Chair Irv Rhodes and RSC Chair Sarahbess Kenney against RSC members Jennifer Shiao and Anna Heard, for removing redacted reports from the building in spite of instructions not to do so, and believes that this is sufficient grounds for their removal from the School Committee.

Deb Leonard, Amherst, said that she had several concerns about the superintendent search process and the work of the superintendent’s search subcommittee. She said she was concerned about how the job description and the timeline were developed, and asked the school committee to step back and get more public input before proceeding.

Update from Superintendent Search Subcommittee
The subcommittee, now renamed the Subcommittee for a New Superintendent (SNS), reported that the deadline to respond to the Request for Proposals (RFP) from search firms was November 20 and that they had received and evaluated five proposals. The firms submitting proposals were: Charter Oak Recruitment Services, New England School Development Council (NESDC), Sunshine Enterprises USA, KDG Support LLC, and MacPherson and Jacobson LLC. 

SNS determined that two of the firms, NESDC and KDG, did not meet the minimum evaluation criteria set out in the RFP. SNS was unanimous in their assessment that MacPherson had the strongest proposal according to the criteria in the RFP. They have extensive experience, doing dozens of successful superintendent searches for schools. Their proposal included a detailed description of their process, which involves robust community engagement, and they have a record of success in recruiting diverse candidates. Also, their price proposal was significantly lower than the other two qualifying applicants at $19,850. Jennifer Shiao also noted their willingness to have meetings with stakeholder groups in the community. And they were the only firm to specify organizations to which they would reach out in support of their desire to diversify the applicant pool.

A motion to hire MacPherson as the search firm was endorsed unanimously in separate votes of the Regional School Committee and the Union 26 School Committee.

Shiao noted that the search firm will take on the duties of gathering public input and that there will be several public listening sessions. She said that the draft job description is just that – a framework to give the search firm a footing to get started. The search firm will take the draft and finalize it with the input of the community. SNS is currently revising an outreach form that will serve as an application for community members who want to serve on the search committee. They will bring the revised form to the December 6 RSC meeting for approval.

The aim is still to make an offer to a candidate in April with the intent of having the new superintendent in place by July.

Superintendent’s Report
Finding a new finance director: Slaughter reported that the district has hired someone from outside the district to support finance operations. That person will have signatory authority, but two staffers already working in the business office will function as co-directors and help create a complementary pool of skills to get the work done.

Lazdowski asked how the salaries and benefits for three people compare to what was allotted for the previous finance director. Slaughter responded, “It’s not too bad because two of the three are already on staff, and the third person is coming in at 20 hours per week. It’s not less expensive but we’re coming in close to even.”

Lazdowski also wondered about the decision to spread the finance work across three people, saying that  “it feels like an expansion of administration while at the same time we’re cutting paraeducators — and we ought to be prioritizing the experiences and the needs of the students.”

Slaughter replied that the newly hired employee didn’t have the full complement of skills and experience needed, and hence the team approach was adopted. 

Slaughter called attention to the ARHS PGO Coat Drive, which ended on November 27 as one of the ways that our staff works to provide support for families in our community.

An update on his promise to write a summary of and response to the report on investigations was requested by Lazdowski, and he responded that “It’s in process. I have made some progress. I have a little more to do and then will work with principals and administrators to put it into final form.”

“Can you provide us with a deadline for completion? Folks in the community are concerned,” Lazdowski asked.

“I’ll do it as quickly as possible,” he responded. “There’s no delay for any other reason but time. There are only so many hours in the day and I’m doing the superintendent’s job and the finance director’s job at the same time, so it’s a matter of time available. There are certain things in process that we’re working on that are fundamental to being a better district. There’s a lot going on — a lot that’s being attended to — and we’ll continue to chip away at getting this done. We aren’t delaying intentionally. We just need to get this into a format that’s readable and accessible and with actionable steps. ”

Heard added, “This is why we’re pushing for the hiring of a finance director — it’s because your splitting [of] duties makes it difficult to do 100% of the superintendent’s job.” Heard said she is also concerned about the human resources director, a position that is “kind of half filled.” ‘ “We need an HR director now, and it doesn’t seem effective to wait to fill this position until the new superintendent is in place so that they can pick their own.”

Questions About Bullying
Sherr reported that when he helped a student fill out the district’s bullying form last week, he found  that technical difficulties required the student to submit the form multiple times. He asked if those problems had been fixed, and Slaughter responded that they have been. Sherr said that it was a frustrating experience for that student, not only because the form took a very long time to fill out and submit but because it was not clear whether it had actually been received or acted on. He asked, “Can we build in something so a student can get confirmation when they submit a report and so they can get some kind of support when the system isn’t  working?” Slaughter said that there will be other options for occasions when the technology is not working.

Sherr again asked for an update and the bullying statistics, as he has at the three previous meetings. Slaughter responded, “I can get a quick number on that, but I don’t have it now. As I recall, it’s a fair number, and I will get that to you.”

Sherr asked, “What happens exactly when a report is filled out? What are the specific steps that happen?”

Slaughter responded, “A number of people receive the report. It goes to the principal and the deans as well as to Marta Guevara and Faye Brady. Deans are the first tier of investigation. When they file their investigation report, all of those other people get a copy. Each case is unique in how they are resolved.” 

Sherr asked, “Does the person who filed get a response back in a timely fashion?”

Slaughter responded, “We’re working on that, but it’s complex. But we especially try to be timely in an immediate threat situation.”

Sherr continued, “How long after filing the form before someone gets in touch with that person?”

Slaughter responded, “I don’t know. But some actions should happen by the next day.”

Sherr continued, “What does a student or parent do if they feel the matter is not being addressed?”

Slaughter responded that the student can approach “any trusted adult” in the building with a request that they follow up. “There are a lot of people to reach out to within the building,” he said. There was no further discussion of support for a student who has filled out the form. Nor were the findings of the Mitnick reports, which indicated that students reached out to trusted faculty and staff last year but their efforts to seek redress were often obstructed by administrators discussed.

Sherr suggested that options for students are not clear and need to be mapped out in the next handbook.

Middle School Principal Search
The timeline for completing the Amherst Regional Middle School (ARMS) principal search was reported as follows:

The composition of the search committee will be as follows: Two ARMS parents, 2 ARMS faculty or staff, One School Committee member,  One Human Resoures Administrator, Faye Brady (Director of Special Education), Marta Guevara (Director of Student and Family Engagement), and Mary Keily ( Interim Coordinator of Instruction, Curriculum and Assessment).

Shiao offered the following suggestions:

  • Make the process as open and transparent as possible (especially in light of past secrecy)
  • Keep in mind that there are other forms of diversity besides racial diversity
  • Try to keep the committee diverse

There was considerable discussion about who will choose the candidates to be interviewed.

Slaughter reported that if there is a “modest number of candidates” as has been the case for recent searches, then all will be interviewed. If there is a large pool, then a selection committee will be chosen to narrow the pool. The presumption, he said, is that any candidate brought forward for an interview is qualified to do the work. The interview committee does not see the candidates’ resumes, because the information therein could bias their decision. The final decision will be made by Slaughter based on input he receives from the interview committee.

There was considerable discussion about using procedures that were put in place by the former Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham whose hiring practices were criticized in the Mitnick reports. Her unconventional approach to candidate screening was previously the subject of a critique by former teacher and administrator Matha Toro .

Shiao said, “I applaud the goal of eliminating implicit bias, but there are better ways of doing this. I have spoken with people who have sat on search committees with this process and there is a deep discomfort with doing the interviews without access to resumes. It’s highly unconventional, and I encourage you not to retain this process. I encourage you to rethink the process. We need to regain the trust of the community.”

Slaughter responded that the interview committee must trust that the credentials have been fully vetted. Then the candidate must demonstrate to the interview committee that they are the right fit. “If you trust that the person who has been put before you is sufficiently qualified for the work, then you don’t need to see their c.v. It’s a different process than a conventional interview,“ he said.

Shiao replied, “We have trust issues in this district right now, so who are we asking the interview committee to trust?” 

Slaughter clarified that even if the pool is small and there is no selection committee, the interview committee will not see the resumes.

Heard asked, “Then who determines whether candidates are qualified?”

Slaughter responded, “Human Resources will review the resumes, and if a further review is needed they would form a selection committee.” 

Heard replied, “I don’t think that’s a great framework for selecting candidates.”

But Roger Wallace said the he supports retaining the process and said
“it is better not to have the c.v. and pay attention to the performance”.

Heard asked “What will you do differently from what happened with the last Middle School principal search? And how will you get more candidates to apply, so we are not handcuffed by such a small candidate pool?”

Slaughter responded, “We’ll do whatever outreach that we can beyond posting to School Spring,” but offered no specific possibilities. 

Shiao offered three additional suggestions for the search

  • Let the interview committee come up with their own questions and not be tied to a prescribed script
  • Let the committee deliberate together
  • Let the committee vote on the finalists

Slaughter said that he concurs with all of those suggestions, although there may be certain questions that, to ensure equity, they will want to make sure that every candidate gets a chance to address so it will be a cooperative process with the committee.

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1 thought on “Interim Superintendent Not Forthcoming with Answers to Questions from School Committee

  1. Throughout the questioning about the path that bullying reports take, the focus was on who sees the paper, and even that was kind of vague. But there was no discussion of what kind of support, if any, is provided for the student who was bullied . We see the path that the form travels, but don’t know whether any support is provided to the victim.

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