Amherst school committee member resigns amid superintendent search

Less than one week before the start of the school year, Amherst-Pelham school district is without a new superintendent and now three school committee members.
Published: Aug. 25, 2023 at 2:57 PM EDT
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AMHERST, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - Less than one week before the start of the school year, the Amherst-Pelham school district is without a new superintendent and now three school committee members as the district has been dealing with much controversy surrounding the treatment of transgender students in the district.

We’ve learned the latest school committee resignation went into effect on Friday. School committee members last met on Wednesday to discuss several topics including naming a new chair of the committee and the next steps in finding a superintendent.

“Our first challenge is that, as of September 1, we don’t have a superintendent in the role,” said former Amherst-Pelham school committee member Peter Demling.

Controversy continued to unfold in the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District this week. Demling spoke out Wednesday and less than two days later, he resigned. His resignation is the fourth within the district in the past week, joining fellow school committee members Allison McDonald and Ben Herrington and superintendent Dr. Michael Morris. The moves come amid controversy in the district that has been playing out for several months.

It started with a Title IX investigation into gender identity discrimination claims. Three middle school staff members were then placed on paid leave. Shortly after that, Morris took a temporary leave of absence, citing medical reasons and then assistant superintendent Doreen Cunningham filed a discrimination complaint against the district after she was placed on administrative leave amid the ongoing investigation.

Dozens of people spoke out during public comment at a virtual school committee meeting Wednesday. Many expressed frustrations over how the district handled the gender identity discrimination claims

“You ignored repeated requests for an emergency meeting all summer, then held your first meeting with public commentary on Zoom. The fact that you will not hear or face your community at a time of crisis is noted,” said M.J. Schwartz of Amherst.

“Over the past year, I personally notified the district multiple times of discrimination against my child by students and staff members. This includes communication directly with Dr. Morris. Each time, I asked for policy changes that would make our children safer and our schools more inclusive and each time our administration failed to take action,” added Maxine, an Amherst parent.

Following public comment, the school committee discussed the next steps for the district after voting Sarahbess Kenney the new chair of the school committee. All members agreed they must find an interim superintendent as soon as possible and even weighed the option of having the district’s finance director, Doug Slaughter, who served as acting superintendent this past spring.

“The chairs should talk to Doug and others in the administration about who else could be an immediate interim. Maybe it’s Doug, maybe it’s someone else we tossed around a bunch of names earlier this year,” said Amherst-Pelham school committee vice chair Jennifer Shiao.

We have learned there will be a special meeting with the Amherst town council and school committee on Monday. The district has also contacted the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents to help with the process of finding a new superintendent.