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Culture wars hit Easthampton again

From controversy over the use of the word ‘ladies’ to concerns about ‘transphobic rhetoric,’ the search for a new superintendent has been put on hold.

Erica Faginski-Stark was reportedly offered the Easthampton superintendent position but withdrew her name for consideration after students sent a letter to the city’s mayor voicing concerns about social media postings they believed to be hers.

It was national news when Vito Perrone lost out on a job offer to become superintendent of Easthampton Public Schools after he used “ladies” as a salutation in an e-mail to the School Committee chair and another woman.

But the quiet withdrawal of a second candidate for the same job may say even more about the bitter culture wars that are dividing this country. Erica Faginski-Stark, who currently works as director of curriculum and instruction for Ludlow Public Schools, was reportedly offered the superintendent’s position after the Perrone controversy. But she withdrew her name for consideration after students sent a letter to the city’s mayor voicing concerns about social media postings they believed to be Faginski-Stark’s that demonstrated what they considered “conservative and transphobic rhetoric.”


According to a report, one posting from January 2021 links to an article titled, “The End of Women’s Sports” about the unfairness of transgender girls competing in high school sports. Somewhat amusingly, given the brouhaha over Perrone’s language, another post from March 2021 says: “Ladies, the glass ceiling is more real now than it’s been in generations. Our choice to use our voice or to remain silent will determine not only the future of women’s athletics, but equality for women everywhere. It’s time to speak up.”

The Easthampton School Committee, which has been in turmoil since the “ladies” controversy, didn’t say why Faginski-Stark withdrew her name, and she hasn’t commented either. But it certainly looks like those Facebook posts — first flagged by a student from the high school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance Club — turned a desirable candidate into an undesirable one. Which raises this question: If a person suggests in a social media post they align with the position that only biological females should compete in girls sports, is that person unfit to lead a public school system? That wouldn’t be the case in Florida, but in Easthampton, yes, it seems that way.


Massachusetts law prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity against students who attend public schools. According to guidance put out by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the responsibility for determining a student’s gender “rests with the student.” Under this policy, a school should accept a student’s assertion of gender identity when there is “consistent and uniform assertion of the gender-related identity, or any other evidence that the gender-related identity is sincerely held as part of a person’s core identity.” When it comes to competitive sports, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association relies on the gender determination made by the student’s district and does not make separate gender identity determinations. As a result, transgender students play on Massachusetts teams based on the gender they choose to assert.

The Massachusetts policy is not without controversy. The Washington Times reported that in March, Brookline High School junior Chloe Barnes, who competed last year on the boys team, competed on a girls team that won the MIAA Division 1 Indoor Track & Field Championship, drawing complaints Barnes had displaced a girl. “Just deal with it,” Barnes told a student newspaper in an article that raised the issue of transgender athletics.

Theoretically, an educator could privately disagree with Massachusetts’ policy and “just deal with it.” But Jennifer Levi, the senior director of transgender and queer rights for GLAD (GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders), said she believes that the opinions apparently posted by Faginski-Stark on social media showed a hostility toward transgender girls that was unsuitable for someone in a leadership position. “It suggested that allowing transgender girls was going to harm non-transgender girls, and that is reflective of a hostile view of transgender students more generally,” Levi told me. As she sees it, such a hostile view would put a superintendent at ideological odds with a law that has been in place for over a decade and is meant to protect transgender students from discrimination.


I oppose discrimination against transgender students and I believe a superintendent should stand ready to enforce state law. But is questioning the fairness of transgender girls competing against biological girls in a social media post an overt act of hostility toward all transgender students? I think people should be able to talk about that without being labeled transphobic. More open discussion about it might not change anyone’s mind, but it could increase understanding on both sides of a polarizing issue. That didn’t happen in Easthampton. Instead, a candidate for superintendent withdrew rather than try to explain her alleged Facebook musings and — who knows? — her current job could also be in jeopardy because of them.

Meanwhile, in Easthampton, the saga goes on. Two School Committee members have quit, and the search for a new superintendent has been put on hold.

After all this, who would want that job? Anyone who does better start scrubbing their e-mail and social media now before their reputation is ruined forever.


Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @joan_vennochi.