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Civil Rights Group Calls on Springfield to Hit Reset Button on Schools Chief Search…

Springfield Reset

Reset may be the only option since taking out the search and blowing out the dust may no longer help. (created with Google image search)

The intrigue and protest that has consumed the selection process for the Superintendent of Schools in Springfield reached a new level Wednesday with an outside call to restart the process. Lawyers for Civil Rights, which advocates for communities of color and immigrants, penned a letter to the School Committee urging it to abandon the current search and start over.

Since early April, the School Committee has been at an impasse over whether to make changes to the search process. In response to community demands, a majority of the Committee have sought to let an advisory committee see all applicants rather than a slimmed down list a law firm prepared. Mayor Domenic Sarno, the Committee’s nominal chair, and outgoing Superintendent Daniel Warwick refused to entertain, prompting a majority of the Committee to boycott.

The dispute has escalated to an at-times venomous war of words. Sarno accused School Committee Vice-Chair Joesiah Gonzalez of trying to “cheat and taint” the process by corruptly boosting a relative. (No evidence has surfaced that shows Gonzalez knew any relations applied.)

However, Sarno’s accusation itself seemingly revealed the mayor had accessed the candidate pool early. (The mayor has indicated what he knew did not come from inside the search process.) Meanwhile, the Committee’s outside counsel essentially poo-pooed the legality of making changes.

Enter LCR.

“In light of numerous concerns that have been raised about transparency and equity in the selection process, the School Committee should immediately halt the process and then re-start it in a way that will restore integrity and community trust,” reads the letter two LCR attorneys signed.

“The selection of a superintendent for one of the most diverse school districts in the Commonwealth is too important to be rushed forward amidst significant community concerns about fairness and equity in the process,” the letter continues.

LCR executive director Iván Espinoza-Madrigal and Tasheena Davis are the lawyers who signed the letter. A former Springfield associate solicitor and City Clerk, Davis is now a litigation fellow at LCR.

In addition to Gonzalez, a district representative, the School Committee members boycotting meetings have been at-large members Denise Hurst and LaTonia Monroe Naylor and district representative Barbara Gresham. Gonzalez’s district is Wards 1 and 3. Gresham represents Ward 4 and 5. So far, the majority has simply not attended, but last week they left after opening comments—or rather after clashing with Sarno.

Springfield School Committee

The Committee with Superintendent Warwick in third seat on right. (still via NEPM/Focus Springfield)

Similar to most communities in Massachusetts, the School Department operates nearly autonomously from other municipal operations. While there are overlaps and the occasional authorization from the City Council, the Committee controls the schools. The body sets policy, approves the budget and selects a superintendent who acts as the School executive.

Earlier this year, Warwick, a lifer in the School Department, announced his retirement. It came as a surprise to some, as he had just received a positive review from the Committee. But with his pending departure, after some debate, the Committee adopted a search process. This included using outside law firm to review candidates. The Committee has counsel on staff, but Bulkley Richardson, a firm in Springfield, has long provided legal services to schools. It would do this review.

As spring began, Gonzalez and other Committee members began hearing concerns from the public. They questioned whether qualified candidates were wrongly not making the cut.

Joesiah Gonzalez

But is it a vice if Gonzalez adds items to the agenda? (via LinkedIn)

Gonzalez moved to add to an item to the Committee agenda to let the Selection Committee view all applicants, not only those Bulkley Richardson advanced. He also sought to add students to the process. While the latter did make progress—eventually—efforts to broaden the Selection Committee’s review never advanced.

The legal opinion Bulkley Richardson prepared became public after a subpanel of the School Committee could not meet amid the boycotts. That opinion claimed that doing so would expose the School Department to litigation. It discusses several legal elements, but on advancing all candidates to the search committee, it suggested it could violate confidentiality laws.

“The risk of a breach of confidentiality statistically increases with thirteen additional individuals reviewing the applications,” states the opinion by Attorney Mary Jo Kennedy.

But by now, in both the Committee majority’s estimate and now LCR’s, confidence in the process was plummeting.

“We are extremely concerned that the search process has been botched and compromised,” Espinoza-Madrigal said in an interview. “We strongly believe the only way to address the concern is to halt the process and restart the search.”

Espinoza-Madrigal said LCR attended a community meeting on Tuesday that took place at Frederick Harris School in Springfield. Residents expressed grave concern about the integrity of the process.

“For example, there is significant vagueness for the criteria for the superintendent qualifications,” he said. “We need a clear rubric to assess qualifications ad alignment with the needs of the school district.”

The letter identifies a key omission in the adopted process, namely the failure to establish benchmarks for the criteria the law firm would use. It adds, that the subsequent failure to have any meaningful debate on correcting the situation only damaged trust further.

“Once community trust is broken, the legitimacy of decision-making by a public body is called into question. Here, there is a lack of transparency. There is no confidence in the current and ongoing process to select the superintendent,” the letter reads.

Espinoza-Madrigal confirmed LCR did not believe it would be enough “to tweak” the process as a majority of the Committee had suggested.

In an interview, Gonzalez confirmed he had received the letter and concurred.

“I absolutely do,” he said of restarting the process. He has previously indicated a reset could be necessary.

Domenic Sarno

Chairman Sar-no? (still via Focus Springfield)

Gonzalez pointed to the litigation risks in the legal opinion that the mayor and his allies have used to try to shut down the Committee majority’s push. The LCR’s letter, the vice-chair continued, shows there are legal risks to proceeding as Sarno prefers.

“If we continue, we can be open to litigation. I certainly agree with their letter,” Gonzalez explained.

A spokesperson for Sarno did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In its letter, LCR notes the diversity in the Springfield Public Schools—70% Latino, 17% Black—which obligates the Committee to carefully considers superintendent candidates’ experience with diverse student populations.

“To pretend otherwise, either explicitly or implied through a culture that overlooks students of color, contributes to a discriminatory and toxic environment. This opens the City of Springfield and the Springfield School Committee to liability under federal and state laws,” the letter states. It cites the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically.

Both in the letter and in the interview, Espinoza-Madrigal emphasized that stopping and restarting search processes was not uncommon. Things come up, he said. Pointing to how unconscious or conscious biases and undue influence can poison searches, as it ostensibly has here, he said there should be more screeners and clearer requirements.

“This is not uncommon. What we are asking the school district to do here is restart the process and to make sure there is transparency and fairness at every stage,” he said. “The process is just as important as the outcome.”

Daniel Warwick

Warwick outgoing, but influencing the outcome of his succession, but perhaps bigger factors loom. (via Springfield City Hall)

Formally restarting the process could run into some of the same procedural issues as the earlier remedies did. However, if the majority endures, there will also not be enough votes to select a new superintendent. In short, the selection process could hit a wall sooner or later without a formal vote for a redux.

Gonzalez and Warwick have clashed over the former’s power to put together the agenda for the Committee. The School Committee’s policy handbook grants the chair—that is the mayor—powers to run meetings. However, the vice-chair, whom the body elects, has more substantive powers.

The vice-chair must “consult with the Superintendent in the planning of the Committee’s agendas.” However, that does not appear to mean the superintendent has a veto.

Practically speaking, a majority of the Committee runs the body. How it effects that will is up for members to figure out themselves.

As the last month has shown, trust between the community and Committee is at a low ebb. Members of the Committee are pointing fingers at the mayor and he is lobbing bombs as well. Gonzalez, having absorbed some of the hits directly, was not deterred.

“We’re in this fight for our students and all of Springfield Public Schools,” he said.