|Mount Greylock School Committee Member Clashes with Colleagues|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
05:19PM / Friday, November 18, 2022
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two days after being re-elected to the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee, a member was at odds with the rest of the committee and the district's superintendent at the committee's monthly meeting.
Steven Miller, who was first appointed to the committee in 2016, was in a minority of one on a vote to elect a chair, advocated that the committee "investigate" the curricula in the public schools and said the superintendent acted in contradiction to advice from the district's counsel — all before the meeting was 40 minutes old.
As is the committee's practice, its first order of business after the biennial election last week was to elect a new chair.
Julia Bowen nominated Christina Conry to continue in the post, citing a desire to preserve continuity after a couple tumultuous years of pandemic and transition in the district office.
Miller immediately said he had "several reasons" to vote against Conry, mentioning first the fact that the committee has had an informal practice of rotating the chair between members from each of the district's member towns.
Later, he expressed an additional reason for his opposition.
"In the past, Christina, when you have been chair, I have brought some things to your attention that have been of concern to me, where the district has not been following guidelines of legal counsel, and you did not put them on the agenda for the full committee to hear," Miller said. "That's my primary concern of having you serve as chair again.
"Going forward, I would like to be assured that when School Committee members do bring forward issues like this that they are considered by the full committee. … In the past, there were issues, especially concerning some votes on the field as well as some votes on the illegally changed policy before spring break where things were not brought to a discussion. That really concerns me."
Superintendent Jason McCandless responded.
"Steve, I'm going to step in and take some exception to your continued use, including in my evaluation, of that notion of 'illegally made decisions,' " McCandless said. "You and I have had several conversations about that. I think we've had open conversations with the School Committee in public session.
"I just want it on record that I take great exception to your use of that word, and I would ask you, to please, please stop framing a conversation about having in-person school during COVID with that word, 'illegally.' We, perhaps, violated our own policy. But I just have to say that I take exception to that word."
Miller backpedaled — a little.
"I will happily accept that correction to: We violated our own policy, and when district counsel told us we violated our own policy, we continued to violate it, and then we selectively enforced a new policy, not treating all students equally," Miller said. "I'm happy to do that correction."
Bowen defended her nomination of Conry against both Miller's stated objections.
"I don't have enough detail on the matter on which Steve spoke," Bowen said. "I think COVID presented some incredibly challenging times and decisions, and I appreciate the equanimity with which Christina has led this committee and appreciate the otherwise calm way in which we have worked together.
"I understand the question of whether [the chair] should flip between Williamstown and Lanesborough. But I don't feel in this committee we have a 'Lanesborough School Committee' and a 'Williamstown School Committee' trying to share space. I really feel like we're only one committee. I don't see the need [to flip] where it may have been needed in the past."
The final vote to retain Conry as chair was 6-1 to Miller voting nay.
Another task during the committee's reorganization is the assignment of subcommittee roles by the chair. As in years past, Conry said there would be an open discussion about those assignments, though she recommended putting off a decision until the December meeting to allow members to think about the assignments they want.
Miller used the subcommittee discussion to renew his call to revive the education subcommittee that he formerly chaired.
"I think it would be extremely useful," Miller said. "I think it shows a little bit what the priorities of the district are when we have a group of people tasked with that issue a little more regularly. We had said when we disbanded the education subcommittee that every other meeting of the full School Committee we'd be getting detailed reports, and that hasn't happened.
"I think it would be nice to have a smaller working group that can investigate a few things and report back to the full committee."
Once again, Miller's choice of words caught the ears of his colleagues.
"I'm slightly concerned about the use of the words 'investigate a few things,' " Conry said. "A new subcommittee in education would have to be defined very carefully because that's not one of the School Committee's primary roles."
Carrie Greene, the most experienced member of the Mount Greylock School Committee and the only person from the district to be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, also pushed back against the suggestion to revive the education subcommittee.
"I understand [Miller's] interest in an education policy committee," Greene said in a meeting available to view on the district's YouTube channel. "You ran it very differently than any of our subcommittees, and it was never approved by the committee, the format with which you ran the subcommittee. It did not follow regular agendas. I would argue that, as a School Committee member, you maybe overstepped your lane or something — did things that maybe were not appropriate in terms of 'investigating' what was going on in the school as a School Committee member.
"I would oppose what you said about not getting detailed reports. We get detailed reports from the superintendent, which is our line of communication into the schools. We get detailed reports from our principals and our curriculum director, through our superintendent, on the agendas. We get detailed reports from our special education director. This is how we're supposed to get our information. We are not supposed to go directly to teachers. We're not supposed to go directly to curriculum directors. We are not supposed to go directly to anyone except the superintendent. That is in our policy. And we have to all follow that.
"So a subcommittee that runs so differently from other subcommittees, I would not approve."
Miller disputed the assertion that the education subcommittee did not follow agendas and reiterated that, "if we're tasked with education, we should have more of an understanding of what is going on."
Bowen added to the discussion by noting that the MASC's field director had reviewed Mount Greylock's School Committee structure, including its current subcommittees and said the district was "right on target."
After the subcommittee discussion passed without a motion to revive the education subcommittee, the next order of business was a pro forma vote to appoint McCandless as the district secretary, a legally required title for the person who reports district activities to the commonwealth.
"Unlike the rest of you, I can't really turn down this nomination, although I'm questioning whether I want to keep the superintendent title after the last 15 minutes," McCandless said with a chuckle.
Much later in what turned out to be a four-hour meeting, McCandless asked the committee to postpone a conversation on the agenda about renewing his contract.
"I'd like to take item No. 10 and push it off," he said. "It's not a conversation I'm interested in having this evening."
This week, iBerkshires.com asked McCandless whether his request to hold off on the contract discussion was related to the earlier exchange with Miller. The superintendent said the postponement primarily was related to the length of the meeting.
"As a leader I never look for the story to be about me, my contract, evaluation, the good I try to do, or the areas I mess up," McCandless wrote in an email responding to a request for comment. "I know as a leader and public servant sometimes the story has to be about all of those things, but in the context of how the meeting had progressed, and the length of the meeting, and the day the meeting was attached to, the urgency of the matter did not drive it being a good use of our time that evening.
"The November reorganization meeting is always a different meeting — everywhere I have been in my 18 years as a superintendent. This last meeting was no different. The consideration of a superintendent contract is a big deal, as it constitutes a big financial investment, and the leader is a large part of setting the tone of respect the job, our students, our staff, our families, and the community deserve. On hour 14 or 15 of some work days, I am just not there with my full attention and what I was asking for — a lengthy two-way commitment — just needs and deserves full attention and clarity."