Friday Dispatch: Every Voice Matters
Using our powers for good
Well dear reader, it has been A WEEK around here and my brain is mush. If there are typos, that is why.
I have written a few bits and pieces over the last month or so about a local crisis with our regional school district that has been unfolding at breakneck speed. If you haven’t been following, this incredible piece of high school student journalism is a good place to start.
As you know, I am not a journalist. But yesterday when the editor of the Amherst Indy put out a call to a handful of folks for someone to cover last night's school committee meeting, I raised my hand. My report & analysis are below. It's quite long, so you might to make some tea.
I’m grateful to be able to use my voice and body in service of our LGBTQIA+ students and the many brave and dedicated educators in this community.
Every voice matters.
And with that, I’m going to make a big pot of pozole with homemade cornbread for dinner!
Shabbat Shalom and love,
Issues & Analyses: Dr. Doug Slaughter Appointed Acting Superintendent
by Jena Schwartz
Published 5/19/23 in the Amherst Indy
School Committee Asserts No Prior Knowledge Of Title IX Complaint
The Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee (RSC) and the Union 26 School Committee (U26) appointed School Finance Director Doug Slaughter as interim Superintendent at a special meeting on May 18.
The joint meeting was called to order at 7:33 p.m. in the Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) library, with a stated agenda of discussing candidates for acting superintendent and making a decision about who would be best equipped to serve in this role in the midst of the current crisis. Of the eight individuals the School Committee reached out to after Tuesday’s wrenching six-hour meeting, Dr. Trevor Baptiste, Dr. Susan Hollins, and Dr. Douglas Slaughter responded that yes, they would be interested. Reporters from at least three major media outlets were present – MassLive, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and the Boston Globe. Around 25 members of the public were present, with many others watching the livestream on Amherst Media, YouTube, and Facebook as well.
The meeting opened with a period of public comment, beginning with those in person and moving onto written comments and one voicemail.
Some parents asked the School Committees outright if they had known about the Title IX complaint at the April 25 meeting, a question that several committee members addressed later. Others called for U26 Chair Peter Demling to express empathy for LGBTQIA+ children. One parent said she would not use this hiring process to select a babysitter for her own kids. Another observed that there had been no discussion of bullying by ARMS students, something she said her son had witnessed in the school as recently as Wednesday, May 17. A parent of a Wildwood student expressed being “terrified” of sending her child to ARMS. One ARPS staff member said “it’s never too late or too often” for those in positions of power to express empathy.
Other comments focused on a preferred choice of the three candidates for acting superintendent, as well as the process itself. One parent, a former Navy pilot, likened the situation to having a large aircraft with thousands of passengers and hundreds of crew members. “We’ve lost our pilot,” he said, pointing to the need to have someone with “flight training” to steady the plane.
RSC member Jennifer Shiao once again read aloud written comments, some of which urged for Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham to be fired, several of which endorsed Hollins for the acting superintendent role based on her experience and coming and the fact that she would be coming from outside the ARPS district. “Our district deserves a fresh perspective,” wrote a Pelham resident. Others questioned how long Superintendent Michael Morris will be on leave and whether the acting superintendent would become Interim were Morris not to return or if there would be a national search.
A letter from ARPS school leaders, signed by principals and assistant principals from seven district schools, included the following statement: “And to our LGBTQIA+ students and families, we pledge our unconditional, unwavering support and solidarity. Our actions must speak louder than our words in support of our LGBTQIA+ community, who have been continually marginalized and oppressed. As district leaders, we must lead with courage and compassion. Together and in collaboration with faculty, staff, students, and families, we pledge to act with immediacy and integrity to restore trust and rebuild our community so everyone feels acknowledged, appreciated, and accepted for who they are. Please remember that you are loved; you are valued; and together, we are ARPS.”
After the written comments were read and a motion to move into executive session was made, an additional person came forward and was allowed to speak, ushering in an unplanned second period of public comment. A parent who has worked at ARHS for 16 years called the process of selecting an acting superintendent “reactionary,” especially given “a problematic history of hiring processes in this community.” Another individual reiterated this concern, urging the committee to consider reaching out to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents for additional names. A third person, who stated that he supported Baptiste’s candidacy, expressed sympathy for the challenge of having to move so quickly “without the opportunity to look at all things.”
Choosing An Acting Superintendent
When the public comment period closed for the second time, Demling “reset the table” with the business at hand, i.e. appointing a temporary superintendent. Shiao shared some background on how the Committee arrived at this point. She explained the difference between “acting” and “interim,” the former being someone to fill the role while the actual superintendent is on leave, and the latter being someone in the role while a search for a permanent superintendent is underway.
Margaret Stancer, Vice Chair of the Pelham School Committee said the public comments on Tuesday were “very hard to hear.” Visibly shaken, she said, “I did not know about the Title IX issue before the April 25 meeting. I am so sorry. I had no idea.” Stancer’s apology was met with applause from members of the public. She then listed some of the major considerations she’d be taking into account in deciding about an acting superintendent, including that this person would be receiving the Title IX report, possibly as soon as next week, along with overseeing contract negotiations, initiating a new 7-12 administrative structure, dealing with budgets, closing out the school year and planning for ’23-’24, and more.
RSC Chair Ben Herrington also addressed the velocity of the process, saying that he rarely speaks from the perspective of being an ARPS employee, but that “it’s dangerous… and problematic to not have a super in place even for a day.”
Demling addressed what he called “very legitimate questions” from the public regarding whether members of the School Committee were aware of the Title IX complaint. He said allegations about ARMS counseling had been “shocking to hear,” noting that he was “probably violating open meeting law” by speaking to these questions. He added that he has struggled with balancing his role in the committee with his personal reputation. “I’ve been under attack for things that I haven’t felt have been reasonable,” he said. “It’s been extremely frustrating for me that we haven’t had the [legal] freedom or ability to discuss this at all.” Finally, he emphasized that he is “very comfortable in my own feelings and values with regards to LGBTQIA+ people. I have family members, I have professional colleagues… I don’t feel the need to cite chapter and verse to defend how I feel about that.”
RSC member Irv Rhodes spoke next, echoing the sentiments of other committee members. “This has been very difficult… Quite frankly, when I left the meeting Tuesday, I was shaken by everything I heard. I was disturbed. Kids are something that’s in my blood.” He said that the very foundation of teaching is for kids to “feel love, feel accepted, and feel cared for,” adding that if you can’t do these things as a teacher, you cannot teach. He also reiterated that it was “not ideal” to select an acting superintendent under the current conditions. “The unknowns that we don’t know are frightening,” he said.
Shiao suggested the committee begin the process of choosing a candidate, and the committee “went down the line” with each member sharing their thoughts.
RSC member Stephen Sullivan nominated Baptiste, having seen him at Tuesday’s meeting. Shiao said she could not support appointing Hollins, given that no one on the committee had met her in person. Demling pointed out the risk of appointing someone from outside of the ARPS district and quoted from Herrington’s public Facebook post from May 17, where Herrington wrote, “we need to carefully review our safeguards in order to proactively prevent emotional damage to those who exist within the most vulnerable populations in our school communities.” Demling went on to say, “Doug [Slaughter] fits that bill” and spoke to his “calm, steady, even-keeled temperament.” He also described Dr. Slaughter as “straightforward and impartial,” adding that he is “as far away from the scope of what’s going on with the Title IX as can be.” Demling also expressed strong concerns about appointing anyone without a superintendent’s license.
Rhodes said some positive words about Baptiste, then concluded that “[Doug] is the best person for this job at this time” due to his existing familiarity with the system.
RSC member Allison McDonald began her comments by saying she appreciated everyone who had shared “their deep concerns for the wellbeing of our community.” She agreed that the process was rushed and restated the legal requirement to fill the role as soon as possible.
“We know Dr. Slaughter,” Demling concluded. “He’s deeply connected with many of the tasks and responsibilities that Margaret articulated beyond the Title IX receipt” and “has the experience at least to get us through this school year.”
Stancer, U26 member Sarah Hall, and RSC member Sarabess Kenney, and Herrington all said Slaughter was their choice. Kenney relayed her reasoning: “He is currently licensed, which is a huge plus. He has experience leading large departments, which takes a specific skill set and one we are going to need…” Herrington added, “[Slaughter] Is very steady. I haven’t heard a lot of controversy with him. A lot of folks in the district trust him. I trust him. And we need someone people trust right now.”
A vote confirmed that the committee would make a motion to appoint Doug Slaughter to fill the role of acting superintendent effective immediately, Allison McDonald brought up a template for said motion, and a lengthy discussion of contract details ensued, including questions related to time frame and compensation. The committee initially wrote that the contract would go through August 31, 2023, verbally adding that “we will know more [by] then as to when or whether Morris is returning. Shiao pointed out, “We don’t know when Dr. Morris will return. We don’t know if he will return.” She was the only committee member to indicate that his return is not a certainty.
At this point, a member of the public with a marker and a clipboard moved to the front row and held up a sign that read “SCHOOL START 8/30/23.” Demling remarked, “It’s a meeting in the public, not with the public, but the public is allowed to hold signs,” adding somewhat cheekily, “Something is occurring to me… I think school starts on August 30.”
More discussion took place, including questions of compensation. The committee ultimately agreed to offer Slaughter $700/week (in addition to his current salary). The sign-writer held up her clipboard again. This time, it read: “Would YOU want this job for an extra $700/week?” Shiao later explained how she got to the suggestion of $700/week, sharing that Morris’s current annual salary is $170K, Cunningham’s is $138K, and Slaughter’s current salary of $116K would be the annualized equivalent of $152K. The committee took a vote on the contract before inviting Slaughter to the table. Seven members voted yes, one voted no, and one abstained. At 9:35pm, the committee passed a motion to appoint Doug Slaughter as acting superintendent.
Slaughter accepted the appointment but opted not to make a statement of any kind.
The sign-maker held up another question for the committee, though this one went unacknowledged. “WHAT IF THE ASST SUPER GOES ON [LEAVE]?”
The last few minutes of the meeting consisted of discussion of making final changes to the contract for Attorney Mark Terry to review. When the sign-maker held up one final sign – “WOULD CONTRACT INCLUDE [CONDITIONS] FOR ACTING TO [CHANGE] TO INTERIM?” Ben Herrington gave her a thumbs up.
Around 9:45pm, with eight members of the public remaining in the room, the committee adjourned.
As far as I can see, this decision may bring some needed stability to an unfolding crisis. With the end of the school year rapidly approaching and an acting superintendent in place, the district may be hoping that things will quiet down. But a great deal of uncertainty remains, and it’s critical for concerned community members – parents and family members, educators and administrators, and other community members – to continue pushing for specificity, answers, and timelines. Where Slaughter stands on the current Title IX investigation, allegations of corrupt and illegal hiring practices, and the LGBTQIA+ community all remain to be seen and heard. Will he publicly address the APEA vote of No Confidence in current district leadership and calls for both Morris and Cunningham to resign?
Some of my personal questions and concerns are as follows:
As I said in my own public comment last night, I am confused and horrified as to why Assistant Superintendent Doreen Cunningham has not been placed on leave along with the others in question while investigation results are pending. Cunningham sat before the school committee on Tuesday evening and said not only would she not step down, she would not apologize for any wrongdoing. Cunningham also has not made any statement in support of LGBTQIA+ students or acknowledged any harm they have experienced, and she and her supporters have even used the word “witch hunt” in regards to calls for her to resign. Her presence is beyond concerning; it’s dangerous.
Another concern is the fact that ARMS currently has no guidance counselors. Distraught middle school students don’t know who is safe for them to turn to. What is the plan for providing support to these students, even through the end of the school year?
Let us keep front and center the fact that LGBTQIA+ children have not been safe at our middle school. Let us not lose sight of the fact that queer and trans children seeking support and affirmation were met with religious abuse. Let us not forget that a trans youth attempts suicide every 45 seconds and that anti-trans legislation has passed or is pending in 45 states. Let us not forget that Massachusetts is a state where LGBTQIA+ youth have legal protections – in schools and in general – and that this protection has been violated. Abuse has occurred unchecked in our school district, and children have suffered – are suffering – when they should have been received with compassion, curiosity, support, and most of all, safety.
Finally, let us take continued responsibility as an entire community for reckoning with how we got here, and with keeping up our calls for clearly outlined steps towards deeply rooted accountability and repair.
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