Amherst Regional School Committee restarting middle school principal search

Amherst Regional High School students march to the middle school in support of LGBTQIA+ students Friday morning in Amherst.

Amherst Regional High School students march to the middle school in support of LGBTQIA+ students Friday morning in Amherst. DL

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 12-05-2023 4:52 PM

AMHERST — A search process for a permanent Amherst Regional Middle School principal that failed last spring when both finalists withdrew, including a candidate who had completed a public interview and was invited for a site visit, will resume in the new year.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter told the Regional School Committee at its Nov. 28 meeting that the current timeline calls for advertising the position in January, for finalists to meet the public by the end of February and for a hire to be made by mid-March.

An interview committee to evaluate applicants, forwarded by a separate selection panel that reviews resumes and curriculum vitaes, is expected to be made up of two middle school staff members, two middle school parents or guardians, a School Committee member and four district administrators, including a human resources employee, as well as the director of student and family engagement, the curriculum administrator and the student services director.

But Slaughter was questioned by a committee member about whether this process, created by the former assistant superintendent who oversaw human resources, should continue, in part because the interview committee doesn’t get information about a candidate’s skills and abilities. The idea behind this is that having a separate selection committee removes implicit bias and allows candidates who might otherwise be bypassed to have increased opportunities to land jobs.

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao told Slaughter that she would prefer the district abandon this process.

“It’s so unconventional it makes people uncomfortable, that’s the input I’ve gotten from people who’ve been on search committee,” Shiao said, adding that committee members are trying to earn trust with the community.

Shiao pointed to the released Title IX reports, investigating middle school counselors and anti-LGBTQ+ behavior, that included criticism over the way some of those implicated in actions against trans students had been hired.

“I’m encouraging you to rethink the process,” Shiao said.

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Shiao said she also worried that the selection committee may be passing over and not forwarding some qualified people.

Slaughter, though, said the interview committee trusts that credentials have been vetted sufficiently and the caliber of person has been examined.

“If you trust who’s been put before you has the necessary credentials, then there’s no need to see their CV, in my opinion,” Slaughter said. That allows the interview committee to focus on different topics than a traditional interview committee, including whether the candidate is right for the Amherst schools.

Slaughter said critiques around the system are usually about whether the process is done well, not whether the structure is valid. Slaughter said the classic hiring process model would have the same flaws.

Earlier in the year, two finalists were brought forward to replace Diego Sharon after he announced he would be stepping down after three years as principal at the middle school, where seventh and eighth graders from Leverett, Shutesbury, Pelham and Amherst are educated.

One withdrew before an interview and the other after it. That came amid concerns that an internal candidate, favored in a letter signed by 10 middle school educators and supported by another 12 anonymous educators, was not a finalist. Talib Sadiq, the high school principal, is now overseeing the middle school, assisted by two interim assistant principals, Doreen Reid and Richard Ferro.

Amherst representative Roger Wallace said he appreciates the search process because the paper resumes and CVs tell one thing about a person, and forums and interviews another.

“It is a multifaceted approach at finding what someone is all about,” Wallace said. “Even though I’m old school, this approach allows you to look at a lot of different facets, and if it didn’t work in the past, it wasn’t the methodology, it was the people who did it.”

Amherst representative Gabriela Weaver said she has been on search committees for leadership positions in her professional life, including at the University of Massachusetts, but never had seen it done this way, though being trained in implicit bias she understands the rationale.

“I can really see the benefits of splitting it this way, with the caveat that I can really see the benefits if that first step can be trusted,” Weaver said.

Slaughter said he expects the search process will be fairly public and interactive with the community at large.

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said her worry is that the pool of candidates is big enough, understanding that the district didn’t get many qualified applicants for the middle school job earlier this year.

Slaughter pledged to be more proactive in doing outreach this time.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.