SALEM — Public school Superintendent Margarita Ruiz and the city's School Committee are in the process of parting ways.
At a School Committee meeting Monday night, city Mayor Kim Driscoll announced that the two sides are negotiating an exit agreement to bring about a change in leadership.
The announcement sparked a variety of gasps from a near-capacity crowd in the School Committe's chambers. Minutes later, a public comment period boiled over and featured everything from condemnation of the School Committee to personal shots taken at Driscoll.
"We just got scolded for engaging in a democratic process by the mayor," said Salem resident Robert Kennedy. "What are we going to do, stand up here and say 'hey it was great, nothing bad happened today. ... Not everything has been a disaster, but for God sakes, you don't even admit to the disasters."
Ruiz was not in attendance at the meeting Monday night, nor did she attend a closed-door, secret executive session held last Monday, April 15, for reviewing complaints against her. That meeting was continued to last Friday, April 19, but the second meeting was cancelled and has yet to be scheduled.
To open Monday night's meeting, Driscoll took a moment to update where things sit with Ruiz.
"Over the past week, the School Committee and superintendent have been discussing the future of the district," Driscoll said. "As a result, the Committee and Superintendent Ruiz have agreed that a change in leadership would be desirable."
As such, Driscoll said, the two sides are deliberating on the next steps. Beyond that, "at this point, we don't have any additional comment," she said.
Almost immediately, public comment focused on the news.
"Thank you, madame Mayor, for your dedication making sure the Ruiz situation is handled," said city resident Christine Derby. "The revolving door of teachers, principals, superintendents has created an unstable learning environment. Kids need consistency and dependability."
Derby further asked Driscoll to distance herself from the School Committee. The request comes as more than a hundred Salem residents have signed on to a call for a vote of no confidence in Ruiz and Driscoll, who leads the School Committee in her role as mayor.
"You have so much on your back," Derby said. "As a parent, I don't know how you do it. But School Committee is just not the place for you, no offense."
Kennedy, meanwhile, said he was "wondering who's running our schools."
"I don't feel we have any local control at this point," Kennedy said. "We see the same thing happen again and again. We're going to be right back here in two years with another Ruiz situation, where another school has fallen off the cliff."
Grace Duran, a Salem resident and program director at the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Salem, defended the mayor and Ruiz in her remarks.
"Way too many people come up here to bash the mayor and bash other people, when that isn't why we should be up here," Duran said. "We should be up here for the kids."
She further said part of the controversy Ruiz has faced can be tied to being a woman and person of color.
"How many people around here are people of color?" Duran said, addressing a crowd that was predominantly caucasian by appearance. "It isn't right what we're doing, and again, I go back to the statement — I don't think we would be bashing Margarita Ruiz if she wasn't a woman or person of color. ... These were all problems she inherited. They weren't just her problems."
Fawaz "Fuzzy" Abusharkh, a Salem resident, said he supported Ruiz's departure but added that she has become "another scapegoat."
"That isn't the problem, and we need to identify the problem. For the past 12 years, there was no Margarita Ruiz," Abusharkh said. "It's the person trying to escape another scandal. She's still there. She can't ignore it. ... Mrs. Mayor, you need to take your hands off the School Committee, among other things."
Driscoll on defense
Eventually, Driscoll stepped away from her seat as School Committee chairwoman and took the speaker's podium as a Salem parent, fully identifying her name and address for the record.
"We've been working feverishly to improve our schools," Driscoll said. "We've worked hard to make sure school resources were available to individual schools, adding interventions and time and coaches, really trying to understand what's going to help us improve student work, kids being successful."
Soon, Driscoll's remarks focused on the heat being thrown her way.
"Frankly, to see so many people coming up here and just... almost taking glee in burning the place down... it isn't the experience I've had either as a parent or a School Committee chairperson," Driscoll said. "We had amazing teachers every day who didn't just make sure our students — mine in particular — were learning the basics. They were active in clubs, plays, concerts. They participated in amazing field trips."
Driscoll challenged arguments that the district is top-heavy with cash spent on administrators, that teachers aren't getting enough support. She then pleaded for the crowd to focus on the good happening in the district, as well as the bad.
"It doesn't serve a really positive picture, or an accurate one to give due credit, to the people killing themselves every day to make sure (kids) are successful to only call out the things that are going wrong," Driscoll said. "I'm all for authentic, honest dialog around what's working and what's not. But only condemnation, only calling out the things you have personal biases against or political biases against... without recognizing there are lots of parents and students who despite the chaos tell me they're having an amazing experience at Salem High School and are grateful for the opportunities they have and the connections they've made."
Moments later, Derby returned to the podium and asked Driscoll, who had returned to her seat as chairperson, where her children graduated from school. Driscoll emphasized her children called their own shots and did "what is in their best interest" when they ended their careers at Essex Tech and St. Mary's.
"Ms. Derby," Driscoll said, "my individual kids made choices that were in their best interest for what they have, their learning styles, their needs. And they're off limits."
"When you said you had such faith in Salem Public Schools," Derby responded, "you saw the writing on the wall."
Wrapping up, Kennedy returned to the podium as well, sharply criticizing Driscoll's decision to speak and her remarks.
"Don't come here and scold us. You work for us," Kennedy said. "I'm just appalled that you came down here and tried to spin this, and guilt us. There are kids doing great things in the schools, but there are also a lot of kids being let down."