Regional School Committee meetings, 8/17/2016

Many questions arose about the future leadership of the Amherst public schools last night, while the local NAACP president and others expressed deep frustration with the district’s handling of racial issues.

The Union #26 and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committees met to finalize a $309,000 buyout of exiting superintendent Maria Geryk’s contract, after a vote last week was invalidated for a lack of quorum. The committees also spent hours in executive session to discuss the release of documents from prior closed meetings, which Chairwoman Laura Kent has said would shed light on why the committees felt they needed to settle with Geryk.

Information released thus far indicates that Geryk was claiming a “breach of contract.” Although details are still unclear, during open meetings, committee member Trevor Baptiste has repeatedly brought up the issue of “disparaging statements,” and said that criticism made in public service is not the same as disparagement.

Geryk came under fire in recent months for her banning of a Pelham mother, Aisa Hiza, from school grounds. Hiza, who has obtained legal counsel, has said she was barred from advocating for her daughter, and that the child was the victim of racially-motivated bullying.

Committee member Vira Cage urged her colleagues to open a new chapter in terms of their dealing with one another. Cage said she hopes the days are done “when fellow school committee members attack one another in private or try to diminish the voices,” of others.

During a public comment period, Baptiste’s wife, Whitney Battle Baptiste, spoke passionately about verbal attacks her family has endured, including “abusive language and vilification.”

”No one has thought of standing up for my husband,” Battle Baptiste said, citing “clandestine meetings” and hurtful words. “Where is my compensation for the damage that has been done to the Baptiste family?” she said.

Kathleen Anderson, president of the Amherst NAACP, and former school committee member, asked the committees if they knew the social justice mission of the school district, and said that instead of justice, she sees “the maintenance of white supremacy.”

Anderson said the district needs to hire a human resources director “who understand what social justice is,” and could replace existing staff. Kent interrupted and urged Anderson not to attack staff personally. Anderson said “there are individuals in this district” who “attack our kids every day,” although she did not explain further.  “I am disgusted that we have this level of disrespect and lack of concern for our children,” she said.

Cage led a vote to keep a presentation about Geryk’s financial settlement on last night’s agenda, after Kent sought its removal, citing the lateness of the hour.
Finance Director Sean Mangano said the buyout funds “will not come from instructional spending,” but from reserves, savings on natural gas at the middle and high schools, and from leaving a position – director of equity – unfilled.
Mangano acknowledged that there pressing needs that will probably require the district to tap reserve funds again this year, including recent major damage to the high school gym floor from a burst pipe.

Last night, the committees voted to appoint Assistant Superintendent Michael Morris as a short-term “acting superintendent,” while an interim superintendent, and then a permanent superintendent, are found. Morris indicated he doesn’t want the interim post, explaining that with his 16 years experience in the district, others might hesitate to apply for the permanent job. Morris added that “retired superintendents” are often tapped to serve in an interim capacity, and said he “may or may not” apply for the permanent post himself.

Kent said she intends to establish a 3-person subcommittee to look for an interim superintendent, for which Cage volunteered.

The committee adjourned to a second executive session at 10:30 p.m. last night, to discuss complaints filed with the Attorney General’s office, alleging violations of the Open Meeting Law.

Earlier, committee member Katherine Appy said she was “profoundly disturbed” by recent personal attacks against those who serve,” and said the “level of vitriol is uncalled for.”

– Submitted by Marla Goldberg-Jamate

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