HWRSD struggles to elect officers, reviews anti-racism resolution

July 15, 2020 | Sarah Heinonen

HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – The school committee for the Hampden Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) found themselves in a problematic position on July 14 when electing officers during the first meeting of the 2020-21 district year. With the recent resignation of Hampden representative Heather Zanetti, the committee was down to six people who were evenly split on the leadership they wanted for the upcoming year.

Initially, Committee Member Maura Ryan asked that the vote on leadership be postponed until after July 20. That is when the Hampden Select Board and Ryan, as the committee representative from Hampden, will interview and choose the replacement for the remainder of Zanetti’s term. Committee member Sherrill Caruana agreed that it would leave the incoming committee member at a disadvantage to conduct the vote before they are seated.

Member Sean Kennedy disagreed, saying the committee didn’t “have the luxury of putting it off. We have work to do people.”

Member Bill Bontempi also felt the vote should be taken as it is written in the regional agreement that officers are elected during the first meeting of the year.

“We are in the middle of a lawsuit,” Bontempi said, referring to the suit between the Town of Hampden and the HWRSD. “I don’t think it’s prudent to pick and choose which parts of the regional agreement we follow.”

It was agreed that the votes would be conducted and reviewed after the Hampden representative is chosen.

Caruana, Ryan and Bontempi were all nominated for chair. Patrick Kiernan, who has been the school committee chair for the past two years was nominated but took himself out of the running.

After voting, both Bontempi and Caruana had three votes, ending in a tie. Ryan received no votes. After a second vote with the same result and a great deal of discussion, it was decided that the two would serve as co-chairs until the new Hampden representative is seated, at which point the vote will be re-cast.

The position of vice-chair similarly saw a 3:3 vote, split between Committee member Sean Kennedy and Kiernan. The committee decided to elect Kennedy to the position and revisit it on July 20, despite Kennedy’s objection to the process.

Making it a hat-trick for the evening, votes for the position of secretary was also split evenly between Committee members Michelle Emirzian and Ryan. It was decided that Emirzian, who has been secretary before, would take on the job until after the new member joins and the votes are retaken.

During the time allotted for public comment, several committee members shared that they had received numerous emails from the community, both in support of and against the committee’s recent adoption of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees’s anti-racism resolution.

Bontempi said that he wants to review all of the emails and have a “more robust conversation” about the issue. Caruana was also in favor of having a conversation with the community, but took exception to some of the complaints that said the resolution was rushed through. She noted that the committee had two weeks to review the resolution before the vote.

Kiernan acknowledged that it may have felt rushed to the public because they were not aware that the resolution was being considered. For this reason, Ryan called for more detailed topics of discussion to be posted on the district’s website ahead of the meetings, a proposal Kennedy had previously made.

Caruana said that the points in the resolution, such as providing diverse viewpoints, are part of the state’s educational standards and that people are getting “hung up” on the words “black lives matter.” Kennedy agreed and made the distinction between the language in the resolution and the national racial equity movement Black Lives Matter.

Kennedy said most people were concerned with how the resolution will be interpreted and enacted.

“Racial diversity is what defines this country,” Bontempi said. “There’s always going to be disagreements. The issue is intolerance.” He said the district needs to teach tolerance and not to villainize those with differing opinions.

The committee also discussed broadening the examination of oppression to include more than just racial issues.

On a more practical note, Ryan asked how the follow through on the resolution will be measured.

“I want kids to be able to come to school and feel safe and get a great education, but I realize not everyone feels the same,” Ryan said and committed to doing whatever it takes to make sure all kids can have that experience.

Moving to the next topic, Superintendent Albert Ganem shared some details on the progress made in the district’s reopening plans. Scheduling and models of classroom layouts are being worked out. He said plexiglass is going into the offices and safety supplies and signage are arriving.

Ganem expressed misgivings about bringing all students back at once and indicated that he is leaning toward a hybrid model.

“Everything else is reopening in phases,” Ganem said. “If we’re bringing them back one hundred percent, we have to ask if that’s the best education for our kids.” Ganem said he is committed to giving students “the best education we can under the circumstances.”

During Ganem’s report, he announced that the teachers for band and art had been recalled and the classes would be offered in the fall. Ganem said he had received many “heartfelt” emails championing the rehire of the teachers and the need for the specialty classes.

“We’re excited for these positions to be back,” Ganem said.

Four teachers and six paraprofessionals have yet to receive recall letters for the fall. These are in addition to the 15 positions that were eliminated in the FY21 budget. The district has been waiting to recall faculty until they receive concrete numbers on what to expect for state aid.

Ganem explained that through restructuring, a position in the central office was eliminated, as was called for in the budget. Julie Keefe, who has been in the position of director for curriculum, instruction and professional learning at the elementary level, will fill one of the vacant coach interventionist positions, with the title of district liaison for instruction, intervention and technology.

John Derosia, who was Keefe’s counterpart at the secondary level, will become principal at Wilbraham Middle School (WMS). In turn, the former WMS principal, Tom Mazza, is joining the central office to oversee curriculum for both elementary and secondary levels. As Ganem explained, Mazza will be taking on the work previously done by two people, Keefe and Derosia.

Kennedy noted, “it appears to be a shell game.” However, Bontempi noted that no new positions were created to move someone out of the central office. Ganem clarified that under Keefe and Derosia’s contracts, he has to provide positions for them in the district because their jobs were eliminated at no fault of their own.

Director of Finance, Operations and Human Resources Howie Barber shared with the committee that he has tendered his resignation, effective Aug. 14. Barber expressed appreciation for the working relationship he has had with the school committee and the district’s executive team, but said it was in his “best interest to make a change.”

Barber has been in his role with the district for three years. Despite his impending departure, he said, “Hampden and Wilbraham is still part of my home.”

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