Five years too long for super’s contract

Published: 5/19/2019 9:40:06 AM

In five years time, you can earn a bachelor’s degree, raise a child through his or her toddler years, or write an autobiography. A lot can change in five years.

That’s the basis of why the five-year contract that the Pioneer Valley Regional School District signed with Superintendent Jon Scagel in February is disconcerting.

Last week, town officials in both Bernardston and Warwick brought the concept of Scagel’s five-year contract to the annual Town Meeting floor. Both towns voted down articles to fund their respective contributions to Scagel’s salary; however, it’s currently unclear whether this measure is legal.

The idea was proposed to Bernardston by Warwick Town Coordinator David Young, who said that Warwick has gotten a legal opinion that the contract can be invalidated if funding for its first year is not provided. So, if at least two of the district’s four towns deny the funding — which is the case, given Warwick and Bernardston’s votes — the deal would be blocked. Bernardston Town Coordinator Lou Bordeaux said that Bernardston has not gotten a legal opinion on the issue.

However, school district officials say the individual line items in the district’s budget cannot be modified by the towns; rather, the towns can only vote for or against the school district’s overall budget for fiscal year 2020.

Regardless of how the situation progresses, we think it was ill-advised for the School Committee to enter into such a long-term contract, especially considering that its contract with former Superintendent Ruth Miller — who was clearly a point of contention for the people in Pioneer’s four district towns — was only for three years.

Warwick Selectboard Chairman Lawrence “Doc” Pruyne, who is not in favor of the contract, noted that Scagel is allotted a 5 percent pay increase each year without performance criteria, which does indeed feel generous, especially for a first-time superintendent.

“The School Committee voted in favor of this contract because they wanted to establish some continuity in this district, which is difficult,” Pruyne said. “I think my main objection is that he’s guaranteed a 5 percent increase every year and that funding this contract will establish some baggage the district will have to deal with if it goes to consolidate with another district. I don’t know if that’s an inevitable necessity, but I think it’s a strong possibility.”

In the wake of declining enrollment, school districts are often struggling to find ways to save money while cutting as few services as possible, and several districts, including Pioneer, have considered merging or sharing administrators. Being locked into a five-year contract with a superintendent is not a way to move forward with consolidation efforts but will instead serve to complicate efforts in the event that Pioneer should decide to share administrators with another district.

Pioneer’s progression has already been blocked in a variety of ways, such as the obstacle of having an outdated district agreement that has prevented the towns from closing schools, which the HEART Committee (Honest Education and Retaining Trust) has worked on revising. Instead, the district should institute practices that welcome the opportunity for change so that it may thrive in our evolving rural school environment.

As Bernardston Selectman Bob Raymond said, “This is nothing against Jon Scagel.” He and Pioneer Finance Director Tanya Gaylord have complicated jobs with a lot of moving pieces, especially considering the district’s $540,000 deficit that includes a $270,000 school lunch deficit.

Though Scagel also had no prior experience as a superintendent before earning his position at Pioneer last July, we recognize that he brings a lot to the table by having knowledge of the district, having worked at Pioneer Valley Regional School for one year, and because of his 24 years of experience in various teaching and administrative positions. He deserves to be given the chance to continue leading Pioneer, just maybe not to be locked in for five years.

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