Fisher Hill parents sign petition of “no confidence” 

Published: 12/19/2018 12:28:59 PM
Modified: 12/19/2018 12:29:07 PM

By SARAH ROBERTSON

Staff Writer

ORANGE — Educators are still searching for solutions to the recent turmoil at Fisher Hill Elementary school after a brainstorming session at Monday night’s School Committee meeting and a petition of “no confidence” started by a group of concerned parents.

“I hope what we do tonight brings back a sense of integrity and trust,” said School Committee chair Stephanie Conrod at Monday night’s meeting. “We sound like terrible people. We’re not terrible people. We’re just in a crisis.”

At the meeting Orange Superintendent Tari Thomas initiated a brainstorming session to gather ideas about what can be done to remedy the disorderly and dangerous school environment at Fisher Hill. Among the solutions discussed were better communication with parents, more staff and more training. 

“We definitely got to be moving forward,” Thomas said. “We’re moving forward already.”

First grade teacher Kelly Therrien said at the meeting that this year she has had to evacuate her classroom about 30 times. Based on what is read in the newspapers, Conrod said she fears others get the impression that the school is like a “Lord of the Flies environment.”

The group will meet again on Jan. 3 to talk about short and long-term solutions. The next full School Committee meeting will be on Jan. 14, one week after state legislators visit to talk about Chapter 70 funding formulas and the challenges they pose for rural communities.

A group known as the Concerned Parents of Fisher Hill Students started an online petition taking aim at the Orange superintendent and accusing her of inaction. As of Tuesday morning 413 people had signed the petition of “no confidence” in the Orange superintendent. Other staff members have endorsed a letter of support for the principal.

“Her lack of actions are harming our children and their education, her lack of decision making is making us seriously question her ability,” reads the website. “We are tired of finding out information about our children's safety through the news media!”

In an email, Thomas said the petition was “unfortunate and sad.”

However, Fisher Hill’s principal Maureen Donelan says nothing has changed and is frustrated that she remains on paid leave instead of helping the situation in the school. Donelan was first placed on leave on Oct. 3 with three other Fisher Hill employees. Since then, another employee has been placed on paid leave, brining the total to five.

“I have heard nothing from the school district since my meeting with the Superintendent November 2,” Donelan said in an email. “Despite all of the support the four staff members received at the forum held for parents, none of us have heard anything and nothing has changed.”

Donelan said that per the superintendent’s orders, disruptive or violent students are being left in classrooms while the rest of the students clear out, causing to classes spending full school days in the gymnasium not doing coursework.

“I don’t have any magic answers, but I’m willing to work on finding them,” said Danielle Anderson, a mother of three students at Fisher Hill. “Their education is very important to me. Therefore, instead of just complaining, I am trying to be part of the solution.”

Some parents are looking to the two vacant seats on the Orange Elementary School Committee as an opportunity to enact change. Nomination papers for the position are due Jan. 14.

Others are concerned about the cost of hiring interim staff to fill the gaps while others remain on paid leave. In one week, interim principal for Fisher Hill makes Patti Byrnes makes $1,725 per week, according to documents shared with the Athol Daily News. Unless otherwise negotiated, the employment contract ends on Dec. 21. 

“Many shifts have been made at the school since November predominantly based on staff requests and parent concerns,” Thomas said in an email. 

Changes include reinstating the fourth kindergarten class to reduce class sizes; extra paraprofessionals during class, lunch and recess; beginning the search for a second guidance counselor; additional therapeutic crisis intervention training; and working one-on-one with students and parents to remedy existing problems. 

“Teachers continue to apply appropriate strategies for keeping students safe and de-escalating behavior,” Thomas said. “(I) am impressed with the way the grade level teams are working with support staff to create procedures, as well as provide interventions, that assist students in making good choices.”

While the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families found nothing to the allegations of abuse against Donelan, two more investigations by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and an in-house investigation by the school are still underway. All staff members on paid leave will remain there until the conclusion of the investigations.

“The investigations are not yet complete due to challenges with scheduling,” Thomas said in an email. “This is frustrating to all involved.”

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@atholdailynews.com.


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