Pioneer Valley and Gill-Montague districts to explore merging

  • Turners Falls High School FILE PHOTO

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School

Published: 4/24/2019 10:38:59 PM

School and town officials are exploring the possibility of merging the Gill-Montague Regional School District with the Pioneer Valley Regional School District.

There are two ways it could work. One is to form an entirely new district, which would require first forming a planning committee comprised of three members from each of the potential member towns. The other way would be to modify one of the existing district agreement documents to include the other district’s towns.

However, either option would take a minimum of three years to complete.

So far, the formation of the planning committee has been approved by the selectboards of Gill, Montague, Bernardston, Warwick and the Gill-Montague School Committee. Northfield and Leyden have not voted yet, but board members have spoken favorably of it. The Pioneer School Committee has not discussed the idea thoroughly.

How the regional committee is formed

There is a two-step process to form the regional committee, according to Massachusetts law Chapter 71 section 14, in which the selectboards and the two school districts must approve forming one.

The unpaid regional planning committee could be created with a majority vote — by a selectboard and the school committee or in a Town Meeting.

The committee would consist of three members appointed by their town’s moderator. One member from each town must also be on the School Committee.

After each town forms its three-person committee, an 18-member regional planning committee would then be created.

The regional school district planning committee would then elect a chair and secretary-treasurer. It would be subject to the Open Meeting Law.

Following a 40-minute discussion, the Gill-Montague Regional School Committee voted April 9 to form the planning committee.

The town of Gill agreed April 16 after a unanimous vote from the selectboard.

Gill Town Administrator Ray Purington said the decision evolved from Gill-Montague civic leaders’ meetings.

“At least at first blush, there is the potential for either financial savings or the opportunity to do more with money that we’re spending to beef up and improve the quality of education,” Purington said. “The discussion has not been all about saving money and spending less, there has been a significant conversation about what this could mean from an education standpoint.”

On April 22, the Montague Selectboard unanimously approved forming a committee.

Board Chair Richard Kuklewicz said he was in favor of the committee’s formation, which he thinks would be better termed as a study committee because of the potential benefits of having a more robust education for students.

“If we were to combine communities even if we were to pay the same amount of money for the service we received from the districts, would we be able to get better services?” Kuklewicz said. “Those being programs that have been reduced, some of the arts, reading programs, at the high school/middle school level which is what this really talks to.”

“It also increased the pool of students, so that programs that haven’t been cut, but are struggling such as AP physics that has three or four interested students at our school or seven or eight in Pioneer. It would potentially allow them to have a more complete classroom,” Montague Town Administrator Steve Ellis added.

Selectboard member Mike Nelson said he thought it would be irresponsible not to form a committee to study what a six-town district would look like.

The Pioneer School Committee Vice Chairwoman Pat Shearer said that the committee hasn’t had time to thoroughly discuss the potential merger, having been occupied by the process of closing Leyden’s Pearl Rhodes Elementary School and working with the district’s new-this-year administration team.

Another option

In the Gill-Montague School Committee meeting Tuesday, the question was raised if there was another way to form a study committee other than the process outlined by Massachusetts law Chapter 71 section 14, especially when regionalizing two districts.

Stephen Hemman, a Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools consultant, said at Tuesday’s meeting there are two options, with benefits and drawbacks to each.

Hemman said, to his knowledge, Gill-Montague and Pioneer are the first regional school districts looking to regionalize in Massachusetts in the last 10 years.

The first is the process, outlined by the state law, involving the planning committee, which was supported by Hemman and Russ Dupere, the lawyer for both districts.

The second option is to take one regional agreement and amend it, adding in the other towns.

“My concern to you is that it’s not then creating six towns; you’re bringing two or four towns into a region,” Hemman said. “I think politically, it’s a difficult way when people are saying ‘We were brought in,’ versus ‘we were equal partners.’”

He said the school committees could form a regional amendment committee, but he wanted to remind them that the amended agreement or a new regional agreement would need to be approved by Town Meeting votes in each town.

“It’s what will sell best to the towns and what they’ll feel a part of,” Hemman said.

Dupere said the first step is to figure out what Pioneer wants.

“I think you need to flesh all of that out a little more. Potentially you could have a joint meeting with Pioneer, or maybe have the administrations talk to each other. The Pioneer School Committee would need to weigh in on this at some point,” Dupere said.

Hammen said each region has certain financial obligations as well.

“If the new region were formed, in addition to operational costs, transportation, and new capital, you have the old debt and things you have to do and you’d need to agree to a separate appropriation from each of the towns,” Hammen said.

What the regional planning committee would do

If the regional planning committee is formed, it would do a more in-depth study of “all of the angles — education, financial, transportation, everything,” said Gill-Montague Superintendent Sullivan.

Duties for the planning committee would include studying the organization, operation and control of the potential district and to submit a report to the selectboards of the towns.

The committee would have to figure out the regional agreement, which creates the school committee who then hires the superintendent, according to Hemman. Topics like the formation and election of a regional school committee, budget and the educational aspects would be essential roles of the regional planning committee.

“You have to do a budget, assessments, the operational aspects,” Hemman said.

Hemman said he believed it would take the committee, through either method of formation, a minimum of three years to regionalize.

During the first year, the agreement would need to be developed; in the second, it would have to be finished and approved by the towns. The third year would be a transitional year.

Through the planning committee, a new regional school committee would take over July 1 in a year to be determined.

If a new agreement were created, it would require approval via a ballot vote in each town at Town Meeting.

For the second option, the amended agreement would need to be approved by the towns and the state Department of Education. This method would take place at Town Meetings as well.

Reach Melina Bourdeau at mbourdeau@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 263.

Reach Max Marcus at mmarcus@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 261.




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