Committee searching for new Amherst superintendent to begin screening 10 applicants

Amherst Regional High School

Amherst Regional High School

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-29-2024 11:35 AM

AMHERST — A search committee for identifying the next superintendent for the Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and Pelham schools can begin screening among 10 individuals who have applied for the leadership position.

“We believe there are many strong applicants in that pool of candidates,” Ralph Ferrie, director of the eastern region for search company McPherson & Jacobson, said at a joint meeting of the Amherst-Pelham Regional and Union 26 school committees Tuesday.

Those committees are responsible for hiring the successor to Michael Morris, who left the position at the end of August, and has been replaced on an interim basis by Douglas Slaughter, the district’s finance director. The nine-member Regional committee has representatives from the four towns, Amherst, Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett, while the six-member Union 26 committee is made up of three Pelham and three Amherst representatives.

The search committee, which has 20 members, is being charged with reviewing applicants to be superintendent, doing interviews and selecting finalists in March. Then, in the spring, finalists will likely do site visits, meet the community and be interviewed publicly, with the Regional and Union 26 committees deciding on who to select as the final candidate and to make a job offer so the person can start on July 1.

During the discussion, the consultants provided an overview of what they gleaned from a series of community input sessions.

Candis Finan, a consultant with McPerson & Jacosbons, said there is consensus on the positives that would attract a candidate, from the diversity of the communities to the presence of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst College and Hampshire College and the culture they bring.

Ferrie noted that there is also high praise for schools programs, including those for special needs students and the dual language program at Fort River School.

But the community input sessions, Ferrie said, illustrated concerns that the district lacks sensitivity on matters surrounding race, religion and sexual identity and hasn’t demonstrated transparency related to issues at the middle school that led to investigations into alleged bullying of trans students and inappropriate behavior by school counselors. There are also issues with mistrust between district leaders and staff.

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Ferrie said the next superintendent will have to be a great listener and have thick skin, due in part to how outspoken community members can be. Fiscal challenges were also a theme, as were bullying and discipline, but all are common among school districts everywhere, he said.

“There’s some uniqueness, but not a tremendous amount around the concerns,” Ferrie said.

Ferrie said none of the problems would appear to be a deal breaker for anyone who has applied, as they understand that perhaps the most difficult thing is the set up of the district, in which the superintendent works with three school committees, the Amherst, Pelham, and Regional panels, but doesn’t have oversight of the K-6 schools in Leverett and Shutesbury, even though students from those towns attend grades 7-12.

“Applicants in the pool understand that,” Ferrie said.

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