Teachers express lack of confidence in Hawlemont School Committee

  • More than a dozen teachers stood in solidarity with Hawlemont Regional School sixth-grade teacher Stephen Bechtel and school psychologist Autumn Jillson as they read a statement expressing a lack of confidence in “the majority of the School Committee” on Monday. Staff photo/MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer
Published: 12/7/2021 7:06:39 PM

CHARLEMONT — At least a dozen staff and faculty members came forward at a Hawlemont Regional School District School Committee meeting Monday to express their indignation over and lack of confidence in the majority of the School Committee.

“You have demonstrated time and again blatant disrespect for the superintendent, the principal, the staff and even some of your fellow members,” said sixth-grade teacher Stephen Bechtel, co-president of the Hawlemont Teachers Association, reading a statement on behalf of the teachers union. “You have jeopardized our relationship with the Mohawk Trail Regional School District, putting not only our students at risk, but the professional livelihood of faculty and staff.”

The teachers’ comments come at a time of significant change in the Hawlemont school district, which has been examining the future of its relationship with Mohawk Trail while exploring the possibility of joining Northern Berkshire School Union. In the fall, Heath also opted to partner with the Mohawk Trail school district, rather than continue to join Hawlemont for the coming school year. The comments most recently follow the sudden departure of Hawlemont Principal Lindsay Rodriguez on Dec. 1.

After hearing the remarks, School Committee Chair Hussain Hamdan said the assertions made in the teachers’ statement were a “real oversimplification” of the reality.

Bechtel read the statement with Autumn Jillson, a school psychologist, in recognition of a recent “overwhelming majority vote” of faculty and staff who expressed a lack of confidence “in the majority of the School Committee and their ongoing efforts to dictate the operations of the Hawlemont Regional School.” At least a dozen teachers stood beside them in solidarity.

“We’ve also noticed a lack of positive comments from you about the students and learning that are happening on a daily basis at our school,” said Bechtel, who has taught for 27 years, 17 years of which have been at Hawlemont. “Instead of highlighting the positive experiences at Hawlemont, the committee has chosen to promote negativity.”

Additionally, the behaviors of certain committee members, he said, have impacted the district’s relationship with the Mohawk Trail Regional School District — referring to ongoing discussions regarding the future of the two-district agreement — and also led to the Heath Regionalization Committee voting to abandon its work with the Hawlemont School Committee.

“We are also extremely upset that the School Committee has failed to recognize the effects of the pandemic and resulting trauma on our students, families and staff,” said Jillson. “The School Committee has blamed the administration for student behavior and lack of discipline.

“You have demonstrated it is not a priority … to work with the staff,” she added.

The statement asked for the School Committee to reaffirm its commitment to the School Committee mission statement, as well as the mission statement of the school.

“We hope the committee and the voters of the town of Hawley and Charlemont will consider what we’ve said as we move forward,” Jillson said.

Hamdan, however, said it was “news” to him that the School Committee has “refused to work with staff.”

“I don’t believe, at least on my part, I have heard any requests to work together that we did not work together on,” he said.

The only discussions between staff members and the committee, he said, were those pertaining to the teachers contract.

“I think on that, we were very cooperative and there was a lot of discussion … which was followed by a successful negotiation,” Hamdan said.

No other committee members — all of whom participated remotely with the exception of member Suzanne Crawford — responded on Monday evening to the statement, which was delivered as part of the teachers’ report.

Superintendent Sheryl Stanton backed the teachers’ statement.

“It takes a lot of courage to speak the truth. Thank you to the staff for showing up tonight and showing up every day for our students and each other,” Stanton said. “These are challenging times. You have my utmost support in the work you do for the children and the community every day in these very difficult times.”

In the midst of an update on the search process for a new principal, Stanton also emphasized “there has never been a failure of leadership.”

“What there has been is a failure to be open to listen and to learn,” she said. “We cannot do things as they have been done decades in the past. Children are different, their needs are different, expectations are different, and every day teachers rise to the challenges and those changes.”

An earlier version of this had the incorrect number of years Stephen Bechtel has taught at Hawlemont Regional School. He has taught for 17 years at Hawlemont Regional School. 

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429.  Twitter: @MaryEByrne.


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