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Rowe divided over superintendent options

ROWE — Both the school board and townspeople are divided over who should run the one-school Rowe School District after next June, when the current superintendent and school business manager’s contracts expire.

At Thursday’s Rowe School Committee meeting, the board agreed to invite Northern Berkshire School Union Superintendent Jonathan Lev to a future school committee meeting, to discuss prospects for Rowe’s sharing superintendent services with three other elementary schools in Northern Berkshire County.

Lev runs grade schools serving Monroe, Clarksburg, Florida and Savoy.

School Committee member Cynthia Laffond said she spoke with Lev, and believes that leaving the Mohawk-Hawlemont-Rowe shared superintendent services to join an elementary school union would give Rowe more local control over its own school — at a possible cost savings.

“They don’t have all the extras that we pay for now,” such as a three-district shared nursing director, transportation director and food director, Laffond said.

But School Committee member Lisa Danek-Burke believes the town’s small number of students would be more isolated than ever from their Mohawk-Hawlemont peers, because the elementary schools share programs, teacher trainings, field trips, musical programs and other events before the children move on to Grade 7 at Mohawk.

Danek-Burke said the school board should at least wait until the new Rowe school building is up and running before making a decision to change superintendent services.

And when former school board Chairman Bill Loomis said, “I feel we haven’t really had a superintendent for the last two years,” Danek-Burke replied: “For the last two years our (school board) chairs have refused to communicate with the superintendent.”

The schism between the school board and Superintendent Michael Buoniconti began when Buoniconti refused to renew the contract of long-time Rowe Principal Robert Clancy, who is married to the current school board Chairwoman Lisa Miller. The town had no legal say in the matter, and Loomis and Miller were elected to the school board after Clancy’s contract expired. Loomis ran on a platform of wanting to restore town control over its own elementary school, which has high MCAS scores and has traditionally attracted at least a third of its students from the School Choice option.

Danek-Burke said Rowe was invited to join in contract negotiations with the shared administrators this spring, but refused. Danek-Burke attended those meetings, and could have negotiated on behalf of the Rowe committee, she said, but was not authorized to do so by her board.

Miller said the board has been very busy since last August’s school fire, and that there had been 18 months left before the contract expirations.

“The people in Mohawk and Hawlemont are our friends, and I don’t want to lose them,” said Miller. “But they’ve also made it clear they don’t want us to build a school — and we’ve made the decision to do so. I think that’s part of the reason the other towns may be irritated with us.”

Rowe Principal Bill Knittle said he wanted to go on record to ask the committee to reopen negotiations with Mohawk and Hawlemont. “I’m worrying about (losing) services that we get, such as curriculum help, professional development, shared staff and service providers, such as speech (therapists),” he said. “I’m worried about reduced benefits to students or increased costs.”

Miller would like to hire a consultant to help steer the school board through the rocky shoals of such a transition. For instance, new contract negotiations for school bus service are to begin this year, and the superintendent’s office negotiates one contract for all three districts. School board members wondered if Rowe would still be included in those talks.

Meanwhile, for the first time ever, School Choice enrollment for the Rowe School has dropped, with four School Choice seats still available. As of this week, the school year will start with 47 students.

History

The school building was destroyed by a lightning-strike fire last August, and the Rowe classrooms are temporarily housed in the Hawlemont Regional School building.

This spring, Rowe voted to build a new school, estimated to cost around $6 million, despite its small enrollment and opinions that Rowe should educate its students in one of the other under-used Mohawk system’s feeder schools.

Miller received official notice Thursday from Mohawk and Hawlemont that they were ending their shared services agreement with Rowe when the current contract runs out next June. This followed an earlier notice by Superintendent Michael Buoniconti and school Business Administrator Joanne Blier that they will not renew their Rowe contracts.

Rowe now pays about 7 percent of the shared administrative costs, which is about $160,000 per year, according to board.

Laffond said she also spoke with an educational collaborative that was helpful and gave her the names of retired superintendents who may be willing to help Rowe.

Some attending the meeting were concerned that Rowe’s administrative separation from Mohawk and Hawlemont would also mean that Rowe’s high school students won’t continue going to Mohawk.

Miller said Rowe’s tuition agreement with Mohawk is written into the regional agreement, which would require town meeting votes from all the district’s member towns for it to be changed. However, Rowe is not a member town, and there is some dispute about a corollary agreement, that allows Rowe a vote in matters concerning Rowe. School officials have been looking for a signed copy of the corollary agreement, from the 1980s, but haven’t found any.

School District lawyer Russell Dupere explained the differences between a school superintendency union and a regional district. He also advised the school board, “Look at everything that could possibly be an issue. You’re going to need to look at it — and very quickly, before July 1.”

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

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