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Sarah Dolven of Leverett cites regional school board ‘dysfunction’ 

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee member Trevor Baptiste, left, speaks beside Regional Committee Chairwoman Laura Kent, center, and Sarah Dolven after the board met in an executive session to discuss the terms of departure for School Superintendent Maria Geryk Aug. 9. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS



For The Recorder
Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Suspicion, mistrust and deception on the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, and its continued dysfunction, are cited by Leverett representative Sarah Dolven in a resignation letter to the nine-member panel.

In the email sent to her former colleagues Aug. 19, and released by school officials to the Gazette Wednesday, Sarah Dolven wrote that “I felt I could no longer ethically continue participating in the process” after resigning following the committee’s Aug. 17 meeting.

Dolven, who rejoined the regional board in May after a year in which Kip Fonsh served as Leverett’s representative, added “I am truly heartsick at the level of dysfunction in this committee, and the level of suspicion, mistrust and deception that is apparent.”

Dolven wrote in her email that she regarded her return to the regional committee as provisional because she was not sure she could make the time commitment due to professional and family obligations. Dolven also thanked her colleagues.

“I respect each and every member of the committee and honor their commitment to serving the school district, and I hope that somehow the committee and the community can get back on track and work together to support our schools,” she wrote.

Dolven continues as a member of the Leverett School Committee.

Her resignation came a week after regional committee and the Union 26 School Committee agreed on a $309,238 payment to former superintendent Maria Geryk to leave her position. The agreement was reached following four executive sessions and the issuing of a demand letter in which Geryk is alleged to have threatened legal action against the committee and its members.

Amherst School Committee his Chairwoman Katherine Appy said in an email Wednesday that she shares Dolven’s view that there is dysfunction on the regional committee.

“In response to her comments, I agree that the committee has been dysfunctional and I too hope that the community will rally in support of the schools,” Appy said.

But Appy said that she is “very sad” Dolven chose to depart from the regional committee’s work.

“She was an intelligent voice of reason on our committee,” Appy said.

Differing views

Vira Douangmany Cage, another elected Amherst representative, said she is not sure that dysfunction is the right term.

”Disagreement is not dysfunction, challenging is not dysfunction,” she said. “Part of our democracy is to have differing opinions.”

Being elected to a school committees carries more responsibilities than being on a parent-teacher group, she said.

“It’s a very serious issue, a very serious job and we should come prepared to handle a lot of pressure and stress,” Douangmany Cage said. “It’s a commitment, not a hobby.”

Rick Hood, who served six years on the Amherst School Committee, said he believes the talk about dysfunction is overblown and not a good thing, though it only has minimal impact on the day-to-day learning in the classroom.

He attributes the dysfunction to people not talking to each other to clarify and resolve issues, instead making assumptions that can inflame relationships.

Second, Hood said there is what he calls an “invisible hand” that restrains public debate in favor of support for the superintendent’s position.

“We get into a vicious circle where restraint on debate causes an angry response, which in turn clamps down more on debate, and creates more angry response,” Hood said.

Having more sense of humor about even serious matters could reduce this tension, he said.

Jean Fay, president of the Amherst-Pelham Education Association, said in an email she is confident that Geryk’s departure, and the internal dynamics on the school committee, will not have an impact on the schools, observing that staff in all school buildings in Amherst and Pelham have been working hard in recent weeks to prepare for the new school year.

“The educators of the Amherst schools have always and will continue to be focused on the students,” Fay said. “It’s who we are as educators.”

As a special education para-educator, Fay said she is excited to start the new school year and to make connections with her students that last long after they graduate.

“I’m not sure if I can put into words the joy that educators feel when we see our students grasp a concept, or when they’re able to do a task all on their own for the first time,” Fay said. “That’s what we’re focused on; everything else is just noise.”

Former Regional School Committee Chairman Lawrence O’Brien said he observed disagreements during time on the board, which ended in March 2015, but not dysfunction.

“Certainly there were differences of opinion and points of contention between members, but that is to be expected on a democratically elected governing body that represents a community with a diversity of opinion about our schools,” O’Brien said.

Like Hood and Fay, O’Brien said he is confident that high-quality instruction will continue in Amherst’s classrooms.

Previous issues

Concerns about turmoil on the regional committee have existed for several years, and the board held a retreat at Amherst College in August 2014 in which it brought in a trained mediator.

Dolven, who was on the regional committee at the retreat in 2014, expressed optimism at that time, saying, “My hope is that starting today we can really figure out a way to heal our committee, and hopefully the community can come together.”

An earlier retreat was held in July 2010, moderated by the executive directors of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents and Massachusetts Association of School Committees in which the committee discussed how to engage in conversations about how members behaved toward each other and toward the administration.

At that time, John Connolly, a representative from a consultant hired by the committee, told the members that there was not a great response from Massachusetts candidates during a search for a permanent superintendent because of publicity about the “dysfunction” of the regional committee. 

“A superintendent wants a School Committee that works together,” Connolly explained.

Hood said having more time for retreats, including a representative from the state association of school committees, could help members answer questions and discuss how they should go about their work.

“The retreats we have had in recent years were not long enough to do enough good, and have only been annual,” Hood said. “At the last one I attended, I felt like some really honest discussion was about to happen, but then we ran out of time.”

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