Lenox school chief resigning, cites personal reasons

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LENOX — Following a series of closed-door meetings, the Lenox School Committee has accepted the resignation of Superintendent Kimberly Merrick.

Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan made the eight-word announcement, without elaboration, late Monday evening when the committee returned briefly to public session after its third private meeting since Sept. 16.

Merrick, a Worcester resident who was commuting daily to Lenox, was 15 months into her three-year contract and, based on her job performance, had received a positive evaluation from the committee six weeks ago.

In her resignation letter of "regret and sadness," she listed personal reasons, including two major accidents earlier this year on the Massachusetts Turnpike in Blandford, and the recent deaths by suicide of her brother and sister-in-law, attributed to substance abuse, "leaving behind their two children who reside with my aging parents."

"Subsequently, my parents require my attention and assistance navigating these unfortunate circumstances in addition to the increased needs that accompany aging in general," she wrote in the letter addressed to Vaughan.

"Leading the Lenox school district requires, and deserves, my full attention and commitment," Merrick stated. "Given the aforementioned personal issues combined with my two significant automobile accidents this past winter and spring resulting in my understandable fear of driving on the Mass Pike through the winter, I am no longer able to afford Lenox 100 percent of my time."

Vaughan's announcement Monday night made no mention of when Merrick's resignation would take effect, and he declined to answer questions.

Merrick told The Eagle on Tuesday morning that she is ready to stay on until her successor is hired. Vaughan suggested in a follow-up interview that he expects to accept her offer.

"I have enjoyed working with the Committee, administration, and staff in the district," Merrick wrote. "Together we have accomplished some great things. The Committee's commitment to the children and families of Lenox is unwavering and noteworthy."

Asked for comment, Lenox Memorial Middle and High School Principal Michael Knybel responded by email: "Wow, I don't know what to say. Kim had a solid vision and always put kids first."

Merrick, 53, has been an educator for 30 years, starting as a kindergarten teacher in her hometown of Bedford. Prior to her position in Lenox, she was administrator of special education at the Wachusett School District near Worcester.

"It's not often that a kindergarten teacher rises to become a superintendent," she pointed out in a phone conversation. "I love my work, and I will miss my career terribly if it comes to that."

Some pushback last month

Merrick encountered pushback after sending one of her periodic superintendent's letters to the school community and posting it online Sept. 13.

"I want to take this opportunity to express that Lenox Public Schools — every hallway, every classroom, and every event — will continue to stand as a place of not just shelter but active welcome to children and adults of every nationality, race, faith, gender, and sexual orientation," she wrote. "Although perhaps limited in its scope, we take pride in the diversity of our student body, recognizing that it reflects the history of America and brings strength to our district."

On Sept. 16, the School Committee went into executive session without advance notice, based on an allegation from a teacher that the letter to the community had been plagiarized from a school district outside Berkshire County, an accusation challenged by Merrick's later presentation of a date-stamped copy of the same letter she wrote in 2016.

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As its reason for going behind closed doors, the committee's agenda for its second session on Sept. 23 cited a state law provision: "To discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against a public officer, employee, staff member or individual."

Merrick told The Eagle on Tuesday that she had learned the committee would accept her resignation without reference to the personal reasons for her decision "because of anticipated pushback from teachers."

Lenox Education Association President Mary Cherry, in a phone interview, stated that the union representing district staffers "was not involved in bringing the complaint forward in its official capacity."

Cherry, a math teacher at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, said that as of midday Tuesday, the staff has not been officially told about Merrick's resignation. "The only reason I knew and members know is that we always have representation at School Committee meetings," she pointed out.

A union official did attend the public portions of Monday night's meeting.Merrick explained that in a conversation with Vaughan, the committee chairman, after Monday night's executive session, "I understood him to say that the committee had accepted my resignation, but seemingly not as proffered. The committee had the ability to accept it or reject it or even counter it, but not rewrite nor rephrase it unilaterally."

Instead, Merrick said, "it's tragic that it's career-ending, it will appear that I am resigning because a teacher accused me of plagiarism, and in academia, that would be unacceptable."

At the same time, she stressed, "the personal reasons are very real, and I don't know if I could have made it through the year."

Responsibilities at home

In the wake of her brother's suicide last May and her sister-in-law's death in July, Merrick's father, 84, and mother, 78, became responsible for the couple's two young adults, 19 and 21.

In addition, three of Merrick's four adult offspring live at home, and one is autistic, she said.

Her first turnpike accident on an icy road last March, not only totaled her car but resulted in a broken hand and wrist. "I was very lucky. I hit a guardrail at 70 miles an hour, and my hand was in a cast for five months," she said.

The second accident two months later totaled her new car after she hit an obstacle on the turnpike in Blandford.

The plagiarism allegations questioned "the originality of language used in crafting policy and procedure," Merrick stated. "Rather than rewrite the well-stated language found in other districts where policy had already been written to address the legal requirements, I adopted and revised the policy to be implemented in our community per our community standards."

According to the superintendent, "erroneously, the accuser suggested this was at best unethical and at worst plagiarism of a sort. Rather, it is fairly common practice among superintendents and appropriate relative to consistency to adapt or revise policy that has been sanctioned by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education."

She also stated that while preparing a response to the allegation, "I discovered that the district does not even have a policy on plagiarism or anything regarding academic dishonesty for faculty in its handbook for the district to use, nor procedure for the district to follow."

"I have enjoyed the trust and respect of the School Committee and of my administrative team," she stated. "The truth of all of the above ought not detract from the additional truth that I have family obligations that presently warrant a great deal of my time and energy."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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