Does Amherst, one of the most progressive communities in Massachusetts, have a public school system that is racially biased?
I ask this question as the white father of children who were in the system for 19 years (1985-04) and as the newspaper reporter covering the Amherst schools for five years (2008-13).
The question arose after Superintendent Mike Morris declined to hire two finalists for the Regional Middle School principal position, who were people of color recommended by a search committee, and instead asked the white interim principal to stay on next year while a new search takes place. As the school year ends this week, it’s a question worth pondering.
There have been other instances of racial tension in the schools. In 2013-14, an African-American high school teacher was subjected to racial slurs in graffiti. In 2016, an African-American mother was banned from the Pelham School after she complained of racially motivated bullying of her daughter there. Both incidents occurred under the previous superintendent.
And there have been persistent complaints over the years that school administrators and teachers do not reflect the increasing racial diversity of Amherst, and that students of color are more likely to be disciplined than white students.
The middle school principal situation is complex. The interim principal for the past two years, Patricia Bode, has been popular with teachers and students, and has experience with and an interest in multi-cultural education. Morris asked her to continue as interim principal, but she declined after the controversy over the finalists in the search process, in part because she couldn’t be sure that her administrator’s license would come through by July 1.
The licensing issue is a further complication. Bode has been unlicensed while the two rejected candidates had administrators’ licenses. Morris (shown in photo) has promised that all administrative staff will have full licensure by this fall. The names of three finalists for interim principal have been announced, and community members will meet them Thursday afternoon.
A further wrinkle is the role of the search committee. Its function was to review resumes, decide who to interview, conduct the interviews, and then recommend finalists. But it had no hiring authority; that is solely up to the superintendent, who is barred from explaining his decision due to the confidentiality of the process. Morris must protect the privacy of the rejected candidates, because if we made public the reasons someone wasn’t hired, we wouldn’t get a lot of applicants.
It seems to me that Morris must have known that he would take some heat for declining to hire the two finalists of color. So I think there must have been some good reasons why he instead chose to ask Bode, who had been successful in the interim position, to stay on for another year. I think it’s unfair to assert that his decision was racially discriminatory when he is unable to defend his decision.
It’s reasonable, in this situation, to inquire about whether these two finalists were treated fairly, but I think it’s a stretch to conclude that there was racist intent in not selecting them. We will never have all the information needed to judge Morris’s intent, but we can look at his other actions on racial equity issues since he became superintendent.
Amherst does not have a history of hiring only white school administrators. I don’t know the percentages, but we have had numerous principals and other administrators who were people of color, and we have had a Latino superintendent.
What about teachers? White teachers comprise 78 percent of the Amherst Regional faculty, compared to the 58 percent white student population. This 20 percent disparity is below the state average (90 percent white teachers, 60 percent white students). The Amherst elementary schools have a disparity that is slightly greater than the state average, with 77 percent white teachers vs. 48 percent white students.
I think we have two worthy goals that are sometimes in conflict. We want the percentage of white teachers and administrators to move closer to the percentage of white students, because students of color benefit from seeing authority figures who look like them. At the same time, we want to hire staff based on what’s best for all students, regardless of skin color.
Here are some facts to keep in mind while weighing the race question in the Amherst schools, and actions Morris has taken in response to it:
- The percentage of people of color hired in the past year, and their retention, has been the highest it’s been in the past five years;
- Morris scheduled a day-long workshop for staff on the topic of social justice, and it was held in March;
- Embrace Race held a well-attended public event after the events in Charlottesville, Va. last August;
- The high school survey of student “climate” featured questions such as “Do teachers treat me with respect?” and it showed a big improvement from 2015, especially for students of color;
- A UMass professor made a presentation to staff, followed by a discussion, on discipline disparities for students of color;
- The human resources and diversity/equity positions were merged and elevated to the assistant superintendent level;
- Last year Morris started meeting regularly with a group of staff of color, in an effort to create the most welcoming and supportive work environment.
- A Racial Equity Professional Learning Community was formed to increase understanding of racial inequities.
Is Amherst completely free of racism? Of course not. No school system can entirely escape the effect of the racial discrimination that has existed in America for hundreds of years. No matter how sincere and self-reflective we are, we will always face the challenge of confronting racism.
But if we automatically attribute anything negative that happens to a person of color to racism, then we diminish the credibility of information about genuinely racist acts. From what I know of Morris and what I’ve learned about the racial climate in the schools under his leadership, I am confident that his decision about the middle school principal position was made in the interest of all students and teachers.