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Amherst school board to select acting superintendent amid turmoil

Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Morris. Photographed outside the district office on Friday, March 26, 2021.
Kevin Gutting
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools Superintendent Michael Morris. Photographed outside the district office on Friday, March 26, 2021.

The Amherst Regional School Committee will begin the process of selecting an acting superintendent Monday night. That’s after the current superintendent, Michael Morris, announced late last week he was going on leave due to health concerns.

The announcement by Morris came a few days after three staffers at the regional middle school were put on leave and an investigation was started into allegations some LGBTQ students were mistreated by counselors at the school.

The student newspaper at Amherst Regional High School, The Graphic, first reported the accusations. The publication interviewed students who said two councilors, Hector Santos and Delinda Dykes, did not support students who reported being bullied based on their gender. The Graphic also reported the counselors misgendered transgender students and staff while also using prayer and religion in conversations with students and colleagues.

A third counselor hired this school year, Tania Cabrera, also allegedly engaged in similar behavior, according to the paper.

The Amherst-Pelham Education Association, which represents teachers and staffers in the district, announced its members had “voted overwhelmingly” that they have no confidence in Morris, or in Assistant Superintendent for Diversity, Equity and Human Resources Doreen Cunningham.

In a post on its website on Sunday, the union accused Morris of failing to handle complaints of anti-LGBTQ behavior, “which has created an unsafe environment for children, especially those whose identities are marginalized.” It also accused Morris of failing to properly supervise employees, including Cunningham.

The association called on the school committee to investigate Morris. It also called for Cunningham's resignation, accusing her of engaging in unethical hiring practices and creating a “toxic work environment that stifles open communication and collaboration.”

Cunningham did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Morris sent a statement that did not directly address the union's vote.

"I would like to thank the many staff members, families, and community members who have reached out to me with care and support over the past few days. Their words have meant a great deal to me, and I would like to publicly offer my gratitude," Morris said, before noting the district had launched an outside investigation last month, weeks before media coverage of the allegations. "Finally, at this time, I will not be taking further questions or media inquiries due to ongoing investigation and privacy concerns."

A day before the union made its announcement, the regional school committee released a letter to the school community in support of Morris' decision to step back.

“We fully support his taking leave at this time, and we applaud his courage in being open and honest with all of us about his experience in leading our schools through a series of unprecedented challenges over the years and the toll that this has taken,” the letter said.

The school committee also left the door open for Morris to return to the job.

“We deeply appreciate Mike’s service to our schools and community, and we look forward to his return as Superintendent at ARPS,” the letter said.

The school board plans to meet in executive session Monday evening to begin the process of selecting temporary leadership. A second meeting is scheduled for Tuesday evening. That agenda includes another executive session, followed by a public comment period and an update from the committee.

According to his biography on the district’s website, Morris began in the Amherst district as an elementary school teacher before working his way up to interim superintendent. He was named to the job permanently in 2017.

Cunningham has been an assistant superintendent in Amherst since 2017. Her efforts to diversify the district's faculty and staff were highlighted in a 2020 NEPM series on the shortage of teachers of color in western Massachusetts.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.