New Pioneer school district pact merits scrutiny

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School. RECORDER STAFF/SHELBY ASHLINE Shelby Ashline

Published: 3/10/2019 9:38:19 AM

A school district agreement is usually a dry-as-dust document that gets scant attention once it is drafted. It’s like the bylaws of an organization, full of legalese and minutia only a lawyer could love — until you need it. In times of crisis, school district agreements, like bylaws, provide a road map for navigating new or ambiguous situations. But all road maps from time to time need updating, and that’s why the Pioneer Valley Regional School District is giving its agreement a comprehensive re-write.

The district was originally formed in 1957 for grades 7 through 12 in four towns: Bernardston, Leyden, Northfield and Warwick. It became a fully regionalized K-12 district in 1991, when the present agreement was drawn up. That was 28 years ago, and a lot has happened since then. Demographically, the region has changed. The population has aged, there are fewer children, and the emergence of charter schools and School Choice have skewed the traditional pattern of families sending their children to the school around the corner. The result is less money from the state, which awards money per head, coupled with costly state mandates and parental expectations for an enriching education for their children.

The ensuing fiscal crunch revealed gaps in the by-now-dated district agreement. For example, how do you close a school when the agreement says that every town will run an elementary school for its residents? How does a dissenting town withdraw from the district? These and other questions have been the subject of the HEART (Honest Education And Retaining Trust) Committee, formed in March 2017 with members drawn from all four towns to create a sustainable school system and to look at regional agreements.

Two years later, their results are in. Here are some of their suggestions:

■The addition of an at-large member who could come from any of the member towns.

■Term limits of two consecutive four-year terms

■A requirement that the committee’s chair and vice chair positions change every two years.

■Relaxed requirements for a school closure,

■and, totally new, a mechanism for a member town to leave the district.

The next step is for the School Committee to debate and sign off on the document. Then it would go to the four member towns, of which at least three must approve it by a town meeting vote.

This could conceivably happen this spring, but the window of opportunity is narrow. The earliest of the four annual town meetings this year is Northfield’s on May 6, and the warrant closes on March 25. If each town chooses to submit the new district agreement for review by its attorney, any changes in the resulting versions must be codified so that all four towns are voting on exactly the same thing.

The original stimulus for the new pact — the possible closure of Pearl Rhodes Elementary School and Warwick Community School — is moot at this point since special state legislation that helps bail out the debt-ridden district allows closure of schools by a state-appointed overseer.

But the new agreement is nonetheless vital for the future, and it is important to get it right. For example, it seems to us that the proposal about the chair and vice chair positions changing every two years doesn’t allow its occupants enough time to grow into the position and apply lessons learned through the annual ebb and flow of duties. No doubt this and other issues will be teased apart by members of the School Committee, which is as it should be.

When towns eventually get this document, we hope they will apply the same scrutiny and go on to expedite its approval.

Greenfield Recorder

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