Morris returning as school superintendent in Amherst
|Published: 07-13-2023 5:21 PM
AMHERST — School Superintendent Michael Morris, who has been on an indefinite medical leave since May 12 on orders from his doctor, will be returning to the position he has held since the summer of 2016.
In a message sent to families and staff Thursday morning, Morris, the superintendent of Amherst, Amherst-Pelham Regional and the Pelham public schools, informed them that he has been cleared to return to work, while also praising Douglas Slaughter, the district’s finance director, for serving as temporary superintendent for the past two months.
“I am deeply appreciative of so many people for their work and support during my medical leave,” Morris writes. “Dr. Slaughter stepped up at a critical time and has been an outstanding leader of the district over the past two months. His steady approach and creative problem-solving have been precisely what the district needed.”
In taking a leave, Morris cited ongoing stress and alluded to mental health issues, though noting he had plans to return at some point. His more than 22 years in the Amherst public schools system have included time as a teacher at Fort River School, building leader at Crocker Farm School, and then director of evaluation and assessment before becoming assistant superintendent in 2014.
His leave began just a few days after an article was published in The Graphic, the high school newspaper, providing accounts that counselors at the middle school were alleged to have engaged in transphobic actions, didn’t intervene when gender-based bullying was occurring and attempted to introduce prayer into the building. Three staff members were later placed on leave.
After beginning his medical leave, the Amherst Pelham Education Association’s executive board announced that it had taken a no-confidence vote in Morris, and asked for an investigation into his leadership. The union cited an unsafe environment for children, including the way Morris dealt with complaints around marginalized and LGBTQ communities.
Some members of the union, though, told the Amherst Regional School Committee that the no-confidence vote didn’t represent all staff.
The union also called for the resignation of Doreen Cunningham, the assistant superintendent of Diversity, Equity and Human Resources, who led the hiring process for the counselors at the middle school. Cunningham has since been placed on leave by Slaughter, who became temporary superintendent through an appointment by the Amherst Regional School Committee and the Superintendency Union 26 Committee.
A Title IX investigation was launched April 14 after a resident alleged her transgender child had been harmed by the actions of school employees and was potentially suicidal after intentionally being misgendered and misnamed by three employees. Attorney Ed Mitnick, executive director of Just Training Solutions in Springfield, is handling this investigation, with his work possibly being completed by the end of August, according to Slaughter.
A second article in The Graphic reported that accusations of transphobia and gender-based bullying were made to the middle school nurse during the 2022-2023 school year. She forwarded them to the principal and Title IX director, before they were brought to Morris.
That Morris is returning, in the midst of the ongoing investigation and following the detailed allegations contained in the newspaper articles, is concerning to some in the community.
Amber Cano-Martin, a parent of two children in the district, said she was “appalled” when the communication from Morris was received, observing that it included no acknowledgment about the situation in which LGTBQ children were allegedly harmed during while he was superintendent. Cano-Martin said she is concerned that Morris is being allowed to return on his own terms, while Cunningham, who is Black, is on leave, a decision that may be rooted in racism.
“There is no way that we as parents can have trust in him to reassume leadership of the district right now,” Cano-Martin said. “We cannot trust that our LGBTQ youth will be safe, because absolutely nothing has changed and there has been no accountability.”
Kristin Leutz, another parent, also notes the disparate treatment of Cunningham and Morris and would like to get an explanation from the School Committee, which as a priority should have care and protection for children, particularly the most vulnerable.
“We also would like to know what response is offered to teachers and students who took extraordinary courage to document and bring these grave concerns to light,” Leutz said. “When it takes students and teachers to step forward to protect kids and the adults around them fail to act with proper concern, it’s not reflective of the community we want to see.”
The letter to families from Morris about his return may have “retraumatized” some, said parent Allegra Clark, who suggested the School Committee heed the union’s call for an investigation into Morris following the no-confidence vote.
“I believe that in order to restore trust for students, educators, families and the community, the entire leadership structure needs to be investigated,” Clark said. “The School Committee should immediately meet to address the concerns outlined in the no-confidence letter.”
Another parent who has been vocal at recent meetings, Jena Schwartz, is among those who are calling for an emergency School Committee session to be scheduled to discuss placing Morris on administrative leave.
At a joint meeting of the regional and Union 26 committees last week, though, several written and oral comments urged the committees to hold off on any personnel decisions until the Title IX investigation is complete. Those comments largely centered on praising Morris for how he has led the district over the past several years.
“(Morris) is a man who has repeatedly demonstrated his dedication to our district over a career of service,” wrote Pam Szczesny, a retired classroom teacher, math intervention teacher and math coach who taught for 23 years at the elementary schools. “I ask you to remain committed to supporting and guiding him through the serious issues he now faces both in his personal and professional life.”
“I urge your committee to let a vigorous and thorough investigation into the alleged mistreatment of LGBTQ students at ARMS, as well as the handling of those allegatio ns, continue to its completion,” wrote Karen Dimock, an Amherst resident who is a parent, grandparent and former educator.
In his comment, Matt Blumenfeld of Middle Street, parent of two children who went through the system, asserted that “Morris has demonstrated that he is a smart, compassionate and dedicated to our children and to running a strong school system.”
“None of us is perfect, but we can all strive to get there,” Blumenfeld wrote. “I think Mike Morris exemplifies the desire to consistently improve, and our schools are better because of that.”
In his message, Morris writes that he will soon meet with building principals and the central office staff to get caught up on planning for the new school year. He also praised those who guided the schools through the final weeks of the academic year.
“Our educators and staff provided a strong end-of-year experience for our students; they deserve our praise and respect for this challenging work in May and June, as well as for getting our summer programs off to a great start last week,” he wrote.
“Finally, I would like to thank the many individuals from across the ARPS and broader community who personally reached out to me with messages of support. These messages directly contributed to my recovery and are very much appreciated.”