Pioneer School Committee to vote on recommendation to close Warwick school

  • During a September Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee meeting, Warwick residents filled the library at Pioneer Valley Regional School, with many speaking to show their support for keeping Warwick Community School open. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

  • Warwick Education Advisory Committee Chair Adam Holloway and Vice Chair Tom Wyatt speak at the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee meeting in September. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 1/10/2020 10:13:06 PM
Modified: 1/10/2020 10:12:26 PM

NORTHFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee is holding a special meeting Thursday to vote on whether to recommend for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to close Warwick Community School.

The potential closure comes nearly a year after the committee voted to close Pearl Rhodes Elementary School in Leyden and amid months of discussion around financial constraints, with Warwick community members fighting to keep their town’s elementary school open.

At approximately 10:30 p.m., about three and a half hours into this week’s meeting, members voted eight to four to hold a special meeting on Jan. 16. All three School Committee members who are from Warwick, and one from Leyden, were opposed.

“Our administrative team recommends that Warwick Community School merge with the Northfield Elementary School for the fall of 2020,” Superintendent Jonathan Scagel said. “We feel it is in the best interest of our student body, teaching faculty, families and district as a whole.”

According to Scagel, the recommendation regarding the Warwick Community School closure was discussed and unanimously agreed upon by the administrative team consisting of Scagel, all four school principals, director of special education, curriculum coordinator/grants manager and the director of finance during a meeting Wednesday. He said the consolidation from closing the school would help to maintain programs and help the remaining schools become sustainable.

“We believe it is essential for the survival of our district,” Scagel said.

School Committee member and Warwick resident Susan O’Reilly-McRae said the Warwick community “felt it was not listened to, or respected by this committee.” Leyden member Sharon Fontaine responded, saying she felt the committee had gone “above and beyond” to hear the concerns of Warwick residents.

During this week’s meeting, David Young, a School Committee member and Warwick town coordinator, threatened to bring a lawsuit against the committee if it were to vote on closing the school.

“Citizens from Warwick will see this committee in court,” he said.

Thursday’s meeting will be held at 7 p.m. at Pioneer Valley Regional School, unless legal counsel dictates that it needs to be held in Warwick. Young petitioned, to no avail, to hold the meeting at Warwick Community School, so residents could be heard.

“We all wear different hats,” said School Committee Chair Kristen Gonzalez. “Our role here is to do what’s best for the whole district.”

Tom Wyatt, vice chair of the Warwick Education Advisory Committee, said the group will continue to pursue options for the future of Warwick Community School if the School Committee votes to recommend closure.

Moving Warwick’s kindergarten, first-grade classes to Northfield

The School Committee also voted seven to five to have Warwick’s kindergarten and first-grade students attend Northfield Elementary School for the 2020 to 2021 school year, regardless of the outcome of next week’s meeting.

“We just don’t have the enrollment numbers,” Scagel said of this decision.

According to Scagel, the decision came after a “tough and complicated” process. He said there are only two “eligible” in-district students for next year’s kindergarten class. These students are only considered eligible because they have not yet enrolled with the school district, he explained.

O’Reilly-McRae urged the committee not to make a decision without further discussion. School Committee member Michael Townsley, of Bernardston, and Scagel both reminded the committee the district is “under financial constraints.”

Committee member Abigail Pratt, of Leyden, asked Scagel what class size would be considered “financially sustainable.”

Scagel estimated a class of 10 or 12 students is appropriate. Moving students to Northfield Elementary would result in a class size of 19 students for the first grade. Scagel said the committee has to consider the cost of teachers’ salaries and benefits. If class sizes are too small, the income is not enough to support the cost for employment.

He said the district had been looking at the budget and considering cutting staff. While some staffing cuts have been based on declining enrollment, Scagel said others have been due to budget constraints that threaten to undercut what the district can provide.

Young, who was vocally opposed to moving the grades and the potential closure, questioned why students couldn’t be moved to Warwick Community School to balance the class sizes, saying the school had the “best educational attainment.” Scagel responded by pointing to Northfield Elementary as having the highest MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) scores in the district.

There are only two Warwick kindergarten students in the district, Scagel said, and they are enrolled in Northfield. One of these students has attended Northfield Elementary by choice since preschool. The other student was sent there after the committee voted to consolidate kindergarten classes last year. That student will now return to Northfield Elementary for first grade.

The student’s mother, Shauna Mallet, has spoken at past School Committee meetings to protest this decision. While Mallet could not attend this week’s meeting in person, she submitted a letter to the committee that was read during citizens’ comments. In her letter, Mallet wrote that the decision to move students has “put her family in distress.”

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.




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