EASTHAMPTON — It’s been strange for this former mill town of 16,000 to see its business splashed across the Internet, Fox News, and British tabloid headlines.
Blunders over a routine superintendent appointment have lured gawking eyes from around the world and drawn the 1,400-student district into the culture war limelight.
Easthampton, a small city in the heart of Pioneer Valley, remains divided over recent decisions the School Committee made in its quest for a new district leader, frustrating residents who hope to escape the unwanted attention and return to a level of normalcy.
“It’s everywhere,” said Joe Bacis, a longtime Easthampton resident. “I mean, it pops up on your phone, on your Facebook. It’s everything.”
But moving on may be difficult. The district has yet to appoint a superintendent, shelving plans for now to hire a permanent leader and instead leaning on a state organization to help find an interim. Some parents are weighing pulling their children out of the district. School Committee members have been threatened with violence. Two of the seven abruptly resigned, and there are calls for others to step down, including a circulating petition to oust the committee chair.
The tinder was lit by a single word.
That’s how candidate Vito Perrone began a late March e-mail negotiating terms of his contract after he was offered the superintendent job. And it was a word he says cost him the job.
Chair Cynthia Kwiecinski, one of two women addressed on the e-mail, told Perrone his use of “ladies” as a salutation was a “microaggression” and, according to Perrone, the reason why the committee, by a 5-2 vote, was rescinding its offer.
The story, first reported by the local paper, took off, saturating residents’ social media feeds and provoking fierce debate in a private city Facebook group. By the time Kwiecinski told the Daily Hampshire Gazette the following week that there had been other “alarm bells” influencing the committee’s about-face, all nuance was lost.
Several weeks later, Bacis, like many in the community, is still baffled.
“ ‘Ladies,’ it’s not an insult. I’m sorry. I can’t look at it that way,” he said on a recent morning, in between scanning customer IDs at one of the city’s thriving cannabis dispensaries.
Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, a Democrat, said she understood Kwiecinski’s position.
LaChapelle has been mayor since 2017 and sits on the School Committee. Initially a supporter of Perrone, LaChapelle was one of two committee members to change their votes following the e-mail kerfuffle. (The split board initially voted 4-3 to offer Perrone the job, then later privately voted 5-2 to rescind; they also went on to vote 5-2 against a motion to reconsider him.)
“It’s not that ‘ladies’ is a bad word,” LaChapelle said. “But this is your boss. This is the person that you’re negotiating with. And you are putting her at a lower step by calling her [that].”
Many residents were left questioning whether there was more to the story.
“While I agree that I don’t think that’s professional, and it comes across as condescending . . . that is certainly not a sole reason why you would rescind a job offer,” said Kira Henninger, mom to two fourth-grade boys.
This is where, for residents, matters have become even more confusing.
On one side, Kwiecinski and LaChapelle say there were, indeed, other reasons why the committee rescinded its offer to Perrone. He was asking for more money and more days off than the district was willing to offer, LaChapelle told the Globe.
On the other side, Perrone, who has retained a lawyer, says the committee never brought up his contract requests in the closed-door meeting. Laurie Garcia, a Perrone supporter and one of two committee members who have since resigned, has corroborated Perrone’s account.
Adding to the confusion, Kwiecinski previously told the Gazette that the committee also took issue with Perrone not answering his phone the evening she called with the job offer. It was close to midnight and Perrone, who had to wake up early the next day for his job as an assistant superintendent in West Springfield, was already asleep. After the committee failed to reach Perrone’s wife, LaChapelle sent police officers to check on their welfare.
“The red flag should have been me getting woke up at 12:15 at night,” Perrone said. “No one thinks that’s reasonable.”
In an e-mailed statement, Kwiecinski said the committee “never makes rash decisions.”
“It is crucial that we hire someone we believe we can work with, especially since we will be this person’s supervisors,” she said.
It remains unclear what was actually said in the meeting in which Perrone was dismissed. The school district, which has not released the meeting minutes, is now the subject of an Open Meeting Law complaint, according to media reports.
“This was an opportunity to learn and grow and model some civil discourse for the community,” Perrone said. “. . . And it was squandered.”
Shawn Sheehan, president of the local teachers union, agrees.
A high school teacher, Sheehan said he’s heard in recent weeks from parents concerned about spillover into classrooms. Some have mentioned withdrawing their children from the district, he said.
“I tell them that, here, if someone makes a mistake, we learn from our mistakes,” Sheehan said. “It’s just unfortunate the School Committee doesn’t go by that same principle.”
Evin Ziemer, a parent of three children in city schools, sees things differently. School Committee members are “not seasoned politicians,” Ziemer said.
They proved themselves to Ziemer last spring, when the committee stood up to the mayor over proposed budget cuts that would have resulted in several district employees losing their jobs.
School Committee members are “doing it really out of commitment and love for this community,” Ziemer said. “And I have confidence that they’re doing the best they can.”
Politics in Easthampton are decidedly blue; 3 in 4 residents voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump in 2020.
The recent conservative media glare — attention typically reserved for the city’s über-liberal neighbor, Northampton — has been trying.
Following the controversy over Perrone’s e-mail, the School Committee’s second choice for superintendent bailed after high school students raised concerns over her comments on social media about transgender women in sports. Another wave of media frenzy swept over the city.
“This has been really emotionally challenging as a parent and watching this all play out in our community,” Henninger said.
Spanning 13 square miles, Easthampton sits at the base of Mount Tom, a rocky peak just west of the Connecticut River. The mountain’s bottleneck slope anchors the city’s skyline.
At the center of town are the Lower Mill and Nashawannuck ponds, snaking arteries created in the 19th century to power textile manufacturing.
Successive mill closures driven by late 20th-century globalization dealt a life-altering blow to Easthampton and its families, many of whom could trace generations back by the products their grandparents and great-grandparents toiled to create — plastic produce bags, elastic thread, buttons.
“They were huge employers, and then they were just gone,” said Jim Witmer, who grew up in Easthampton, and, in the 1980s, saw the last mill close down.
LaChapelle, who was raised just south of the city, in Holyoke, remembers the period well.
“My mom would say, ‘You can go anywhere you want. But you can’t go to Easthampton,’ ” she recalled.
But within the past two decades, the city has bounced back — the resurgence of its mills powering a second life. Today, they’re home to artist studios, small businesses, and an in-demand wedding venue.
Witmer, 53, now manages the Pleasant Street Mills. He also owns, with his wife, four of the massive brick buildings. They’ve invested millions of dollars into renovations.
After a tough go, Easthampton is now flourishing. But that’s not what Witmer sees in the news.
“It’s just a shame that all of the progress that the city has made is getting drowned out by this noise,” he said.
City Council President Homar Gomez, the first Latino elected to the position and the only current elected official of color in Easthampton, moved to the city with his family in 2007. Neighbors here have more in common than what drives them apart, he said.
“Do we have some disagreements? Yes. Did we have some disagreement with the statement of ‘ladies,’ that some people say that was a microaggression, and some people say no? Yes, completely,” Gomez said. “. . . But at the end of the day, we are a united community.”
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
Mandy McLaren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mandy_mclaren.