Citing ‘compromised state’ of Pioneer School Committee, chair and Budget Subcommittee chair resign

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School. Staff File Photo/Zack DeLuca

Staff Writer
Published: 2/26/2021 6:02:52 PM

NORTHFIELD — A Pioneer Valley Regional School District special School Committee meeting Thursday night saw two members resign, effective immediately, citing a “compromised state” created by the “unacceptable” actions of other members.

Members met to discuss, and ultimately voted to act on, a recommendation from Superintendent Jonathan Scagel to postpone moving the sixth-grade classes from the two elementary schools to Pioneer Valley Regional School until fall of 2022. The original proposal to move students this fall had received pushback from district families, as well as some committee members.

At the top of the meeting, before any vote was cast, Chair Kristen Gonzalez read a statement announcing her immediate resignation, which she then shared via email with the Greenfield Recorder. Gonzalez left the meeting after reading her statement. At the end of the hour-and-a-half meeting and discussion of members’ conduct, member Mike Townsley, who serves as Budget Subcommittee chair, announced his resignation alongside Gonzalez.

Gonzalez said she ran for School Committee, was elected and served for two years and four months, because she wanted to correct the “irresponsibility and dysfunction” of previous committees. Since being elected, she said much has changed, but many problems remain.

“The district has obtained a sense of financial stability and direction with the budget, the school lunch deficit was addressed and is being managed with competence and organization, yet our educational programs, staff and student enrollment remain in a compromised state,” Gonzalez said. “This compromised state is a result of the actions of certain members of this School Committee.”

She said she has witnessed members reply to parent correspondence and reference parents as “inane,” and “lie in an effort for personal gain for themselves and the towns in which they represent.” She said she has “witnessed the use of personal email as a means for deceit and control,” and students and staff “remain compromised” due to a “lack of professionalism, mutual respect and refusal to conform to standards set forth by governing bodies to direct effective functioning.”

“As an individual whose life’s work has been to improve the lives of children and their families, I can no longer sit back, remain quiet and be a member of a committee that in itself is nothing short of a disaster,” Gonzalez said. “I can no longer be a part of a committee whose mission is lost and continues to be sacrificed by individuals whose personal agendas are prioritized over the needs and education of our district’s children.”

School Committee member Robin Neipp raised further concerns around conduct, referencing letters between Scagel, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and committee members, which were shared with the Recorder this week. One letter was from Scagel to School Committee members recommending the delay of the sixth-grade move, and one was from DESE Associate Commissioner John Sullivan to Scagel requesting more information pertaining to the potential move for review.

Committee member David Young identified himself as the member who shared the letters with the Recorder, stating they are public documents.

Thursday’s agenda also saw an executive session to discuss Open Meeting Law complaints against the committee. Young objected to this being held in executive session, and ultimately members did not discuss the complaints Thursday. The school district’s attorney, Russell Dupere, said the committee is required to meet and respond to the complaints by March 4.

“We have a problem with openness and throwing shade on everything is not helping,” Young said.

Members Karen O’Neil and Julie Burke questioned Young’s conduct. O’Neil accused Young of trying to “publicize this and have the whole thing happen in the media,” and said members “should not go behind each other’s backs to stir things up.”

Echoing this sentiment, Burke said Young “undermines the committee at every turn,” sends information to the Recorder or other news outlets “behind our backs,” and “doesn’t respect our process whatsoever.” She said she was “disgusted” by Young’s conduct and that “there needs to be accountability for this behavior.”

Speaking to the resignations and comments from fellow members Friday, Young said that “with benefit of hindsight (he) could have used a lighter touch, given the vote.” He said he was “annoying some in ‘leadership’ by using facts they want to bury,” and called comments from other committee members about his conduct “ad hominem attacks.” He said he made the “snap choice not to object to the personal attacks and let them roll.”

“I ‘leaked’ the DESE document to the press and members of our town governments, and I’d do it again. Let the light shine,” Young said.

In the last five minutes of Thursday’s meeting, Townsley spoke, thanking School Committee members for working over the last two and a half years “to make corrections to the school system,” and thanked staff for “enduring tough times.” After encouraging community members to be actively involved in the transition process for the sixth-grade move, he announced his resignation.

“The last couple of days, individuals have done things, and today did things that, to me, is unacceptable and that resulted, I think, in one of our members resigning,” Townsley said. “With that being said, I’m going stand tall and stand with Kristen, and I’m going to resign at the adjournment of this meeting.”

The meeting adjourned shortly thereafter, with Neipp commenting that the resignations are “devastating,” and other members muttering in agreement as the meeting’s livestream ended.

As for filling the two empty seats, the school district’s regional agreement outlines that the moderator from the affected towns — in this case Northfield and Bernardston — appoints someone to fill the vacancy until the next election.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579.



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