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Rowe told to freeze school choice while  at Hawlemont

HAWLEMONT — If Rowe Elementary School wants to stay in the Hawlemont Regional School building for another year, it may have to freeze its school-choice enrollment.

On Monday, the Hawlemont Regional School Committee told Rowe school board members that Rowe is welcome to enroll as many children into its preschool program as it wants: But if Rowe accepts school-choice students into kindergarten through Grade 6, it will be essentially competing with Hawlemont for prospective school-choice students in the same location.

On Tuesday, the Rowe School Committee called for a special meeting on Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Rowe Town Hall to discuss the draft agreement with Hawlemont.

Rowe has already agreed not to take new school-choice students from Hawley or Charlemont (the Hawlemont district), because Hawlemont would then have to pay Rowe $5,000 to educate a school-choice student — in the same building.

Rowe will lose three school-choice children next year, as they move into seventh grade, and it has one preschooler from Buckland whose family may want to transfer through school-choice into Rowe.

But Hawlemont board member Daphne Clark said accepting children from all other districts except Hawlemont would be discriminatory.

The Rowe School has counted on the enrollment of school-choice children to help offset elementary education costs and fill classroom vacancies. Roughly a third of Rowe’s enrollment in recent years has been school-choice. In September of this school year, Rowe Elementary had 36 Rowe children and 22 school choice children enrolled, according to the superintendent’s office.

Superintendent Michael Buoniconti said Rowe already has established a policy to first accept the siblings of children who are already enrolled in the Rowe school. He said the procedure is for the school committee to declare a number of classroom seats available for school-choice students, accepting Rowe school-choice siblings first, then others after.

“What I feel uncomfortable with is opening up seats from kindergarten through Grade 6,” said Clark. “I want to worry about who we have right now being happy and healthy. I would not want to add more school kids to the mix.”

Rowe School Committee member Lisa Danek Burke said she was not prepared to discuss limiting Rowe’s school choice enrollment without seeing projected enrollment numbers and which school-choice children have younger siblings who may want to follow them to Rowe.

After a fire destroyed the Rowe school building in August, Rowe has been operating as “a school within a school” in the Hawlemont school building.

The two committees are negotiating a renewal of their school-sharing agreement for the school year that begins in September, so that they will be able to build budgets for the next school year.

The school choice question and where to have additional parking for more teachers and more school parents took up most of the discussion Monday afternoon.

For now, the agreement says Rowe is to pay $74,032 to lease space for the coming school year. That’s what Rowe is paying for this year, based on Rowe paying about half of the building’s average operating costs plus an additional $14,737 for utility increases and costs directly resulting from the increased building use. After this year’s heating season, this year’s average operating costs will be calculated, and Rowe and Hawlemont may renegotiate the cost-sharing at the end of April, with more up-to-date numbers.

The draft “memorandum of understanding” is to be reviewed by Russell Duprere, legal council for the schools, before it goes before the school committees for a vote, later this month.

To solve the parking problem, Charlotte Dewey has agreed to allow the parking lot of the closed Charlemont Inn to be used this year as an overflow parking lot for school staff. Rowe is to pay for winter plowing and insurance.

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