Heath opts to partner with Mohawk Trail for elementary education instead of Hawlemont

Staff Writer
Published: 9/21/2021 7:31:20 PM

HEATH — Following a multi-year study on the town potentially joining the Hawlemont Regional School District, Heath has instead decided to permanently partner with the Mohawk Trail Regional School District for elementary education starting with the 2022 to 2023 school year.

Members of the Heath Regionalization Study Team that had been tasked with examining the feasibility of a potential partnership with Hawlemont cited concerns over the school district’s finances, a problematic voting arrangement and an unclear future relationship between the Hawlemont and Mohawk Trail districts as their reasoning for the change.

Heath Elementary School was closed in 2017 due to consistently low enrollment, which had dwindled to about 30 students. Since then, Heath’s elementary-aged students have been attending Mohawk Trail or Hawlemont regional schools through a tuition agreement.

In February, Heath was awarded a grant from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) that would support hiring consultants to provide more data on joining the Hawlemont school district, for which a draft regional agreement had been proposed. The Selectboard had asked Mohawk Trail School Committee representative Budge Litchfield and resident Bob Gruen to begin a study of the potential partnership four years ago, with the two later being joined by Mohawk Trail School Committee representative Barbara Rode and resident Ken Rocke to create the Heath Regionalization Study Team. The group met nearly weekly from March to September of this year.

On Sept. 7, the Heath Regionalization Study Team presented its findings to the Selectboard and members of the public, and the team voted to suspend most aspects of the study two days later.

“This was a painful decision, but as was clear from the data and facts we shared on (Sept. 7), we really had no choice,” Heath Regionalization Study Team members wrote in a press release. “Locking the town into a long-term governance arrangement as described in the proposed draft regional agreement was just unacceptable. It is imperative to note that our decision to suspend aspects of the study was in no way a criticism or negative response to the fine work of the staff and administrators of the Hawlemont Regional (Elementary) School.”

The concerns cited by the Heath Regionalization Study Team included economic considerations, as the team continues to “investigate the question of the stability of Hawlemont finances, including the status of normal reserve funds.” Another thing members noticed from the financial analysis was that there is “no clear economic benefit to Heath for joining the Hawlemont Regional School District.”

In their press release, Heath Regionalization Study Team members also said there are some “very concerning matters” related to governance of the Hawlemont school district. The proposed draft regional agreement contains two unique requirements for voting, which they claim do not conform with state regulations and would require special legislation to be enacted.

“First, for the school budget to be approved, all three Town Meetings would need to vote ‘yes,’” the team members wrote, referring to the towns of Heath, Hawley and Charlemont. “State law specifies that only two-thirds of the towns would need to vote ‘yes.’

“Secondly, although each of the two school committee members from each town would have their votes weighted based on town population, for a committee motion to pass, at least one person from each town would need to vote ‘yes,’” the press release continues. “Therefore, even if the weight of the ‘yes’ votes cast was over 50%, without at least one ‘yes’ from each town, the motion would fail.”

Heath Regionalization Study Team members argue this voting arrangement “would undermine the concept of one person, one vote, which weighted voting is designed to respect.”

“(The team) felt that these two veto mechanisms were unworkable and could lead to repeated ‘log jams’ of committee and district functions,” the press release continues.

Mohawk Trail School Committee Chair Martha Thurber said the districts of Hawlemont and Mohawk Trail operate under a two-district cost-sharing agreement that will expire at the end of June 2022, and respective parties are assessing whether to renew this agreement.

The Heath Regionalization Study Team expressed concern that the current Hawlemont School Committee “is coming closer and closer to ending the shared administrative services arrangement with MTRSD.” If this happens, it would further separate Heath from the Mohawk Trail school district.

“Hawlemont has told us that they want to explore other options for getting those services,” Thurber said. “That is a choice the Hawlemont School Committee can make.”

Hawlemont School Committee member Hussain Hamdan confirmed that the Hawlemont School Committee is “exploring other options” and the future of the cost-sharing agreement between the two districts is, indeed, uncertain.

Hamdan added that while it is Heath’s decision to make, he was “incredibly disappointed” that the concerns raised by the Heath Regionalization Study Team were not brought up sooner, particularly those associated with the financial analysis.

“I think any reasonable person would have anticipated these in advance,” he said.

Under a new partnership with the Mohawk Trail school district starting with the 2022 to 2023 school year, Heath’s representatives to the Mohawk Trail School Committee — Rode and Litchfield — plan to ask for community input later this fall on whether to designate Buckland-Shelburne Elementary School or Colrain Central School as the town’s partner school.

“We’ll have to amend our regional agreement at Annual Town Meeting to designate that school as where Heath students would go to school,” Thurber said. 

Heath families will still be able to enroll their children with the Hawlemont Regional School District through the School Choice program, although they will need to provide their own transportation.

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

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