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Rowe gets more school petitions

Special town meeting vote scheduled for Jan. 23

ROWE — The Jan. 23 special town meeting will include three articles about replacing the town’s destroyed school building — two by way of residents’ petitions and one by the Board of Selectmen.

Meanwhile, selectmen have written to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, saying the town won’t seek state money for a future school building.

A forum planned for Wednesday for residents to discuss whether they want to build a new school has been postponed and won’t occur before the special town meeting. Also, the School Committee is researching modular classroom units, in case negotiations to stay another year in the Hawlemont school fail.

Town Hall was a busy place Wednesday, as selectmen fine-tuned the special town meeting warrant, while school committee members, in another room, discussed modular classrooms and bid specifications for demolishing the old school.

During both meetings, residents occasionally voiced strong opinions both for and against building a new school in a town where there are fewer than 40 elementary school-age children.

The old Rowe School was the only town building that could hold more than 100 people, and more than 100 are easily expected to attend at 6:30 p.m. special town meeting. The meeting place is still “unspecified,” according to the town’s website, but the board has tentatively chosen the town’s fire station for it. The plans are to move the fire trucks out of the bays, so that people could meet there.

The selectmen’s warrant article asks residents to spend $250,000 from the town’s fire insurance proceeds to pay for a building project manager and architect to provide preliminary design plans and cost estimates for a “municipal building project” — which may or may not be a school building. The reason a school wasn’t specified was so that other buildings, such as a community center or larger town hall building could be planned, if that’s what voters want. However, because part of the former school grounds were taken by eminent domain, for the purpose of building a school, there are questions about whether a non-school building could be put on that site.

A warrant article, petitioned by 52 voters, asks to spend up to $50,000 for an “impartial consultant,” experienced in municipal and rural education, to “study the demographics and needs of the town” regarding elementary school education. This article calls for the consultant to prepare a report on education options, the pros and cons of each, and cost estimates for each.

A third article, signed by 106 voters, seeks the $250,000 to be used specifically for a “school building project” that can also be used for community purposes, as was the old elementary school. This third article is supported by the School Building Committee.

The Finance Committee does not support the “municipal building” warrant article, but does support the two petitioned articles by a 2-to-1 vote in each case.

The Oct. 1 enrollment record indicates the Rowe School has 52 children in kindergarten through Grade 6 at Rowe School (32 from Rowe, 20 as School Choice students from other towns), and seven preschool children (five from Rowe, two from other towns). Since the Aug. 4, 2012 fire destroyed the school building, Rowe classes have been moved into the Hawlemont Regional School building.

Selectmen said the town isn’t eligible for state money because enrollment is too small; however, the board is required to write a letter saying they are not seeking state money.

Those in town who want a new school are eager to do it as quickly as possible, to retain both existing School Choice students and to attract more of them. Ever since Heath built its own elementary school, Rowe has depended on school choice students to fill its classrooms. Despite its rural location, the Rowe Elementary School has drawn School Choice students through generous local funding that allows innovative programs, including Spanish language classes, field trips, free lunch for all students, and free preschool.

School board choices

Concerns about Rowe’s School Choice numbers seems to have held up negotiations to extend Rowe’s stay in the Hawlemont building for a second school year.

In December, the Hawlemont School Committee said it didn’t want Rowe to add more School Choice students to its enrollment, because it would be competing with Hawlemont for more students within the same building.

Hawlemont Chairwoman Beth Bandy told Rowe School Committee members her board is still open to negotiating some of the School Choice issues, such as allowing existing Rowe preschool children to stay on as School Choice students, or allowing the siblings of existing School Choice students to come to Rowe.

“The reason we are concerned is we have two schools with different levels of resources in the same building,” said Bandy. “We are competing for the same kids in the same school building.”

Rowe and Hawlemont committees are meeting Tuesday at 4:15 p.m. in Hawlemont, to continue discussing an agreement for next year.

Rowe Chairwoman Lisa Miller said she hopes Rowe can stay in Hawlemont for at least another year, but is looking into modular classrooms, in case the negotiations fail.

“If things work out with Hawlemont, that would be fantastic,” she said. “If they don’t, I don’t want to be left holding the bag. I don’t want to be left without a school — that’s all.”

She presented other school board members with information about modular classrooms. She said the cost for a two-year contract, to rent enough modules for four classrooms, would cost about $200,000. The advantages of having modular classrooms, she said, would be that Rowe could increase its School Choice enrollment and have the modular structures on hand, in case construction of a permanent building takes longer than expected.

But committee member Lisa Danke-Burke said she’s already gotten calls from parents “concerned that we’re not going to be in Hawlemont next year. It’s hard to think parents are going to choice their kids into modular units.” She argued it would be best for the students to “only move once” to a new school location. “These don’t look like trailer parks,” Miller said of the proposed modular units.

Miller said if no more School Choice students are enrolled for the 2013-14 school year, projected enrollment for Rowe would be 54 students; and as School Choice students graduate, enrollment for the 2014-15 school year would fall to 45. In the school year that begins in the fall of 2015, it would be down to 35 students.

Because the town’s insurance covers 100 percent of student relocation costs for this year, Miller said more of the cost of modular classrooms could be covered by insurance if a contract was pursued this year.

You can reach Diane Broncaccio at:
dbronc@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 277

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