Pioneer puts sixth-grade transition on hold

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2021 5:15:14 PM
Modified: 12/2/2021 5:14:41 PM

NORTHFIELD — The plan to move sixth-grade students from the Northfield and Bernardston elementary schools to Pioneer Valley Regional School is being delayed following new financial information from Interim Superintendent Patricia Kinsella.

In a statement and vote crafted by the Pioneer School Committee during a meeting earlier this week, the School Committee and district said they are unable to meet the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (DESE) requirements to transition students before the planned date of fall 2022.

“We acknowledge that we cannot meet the deadline to provide the proper documentation to DESE regarding the sixth-grade transition for the 2022-23 school year,” School Committee Chair Julie Burke said as the statement was crafted. “We vote to postpone the sixth-grade transition until further research and planning can be presented by the admin team to the whole committee, which we will take under advisement.”

DESE sent the school district a letter on Feb. 22 with a list of questions about the process, operations and finances, but the school did not provide those answers because the School Committee voted to pause the move three days later, according to Kinsella. A brief written exchange occurred between the district and DESE afterward, but official progress on the move was paused. The committee responsible for helping plan the transition “continued to do some work,” she said, but significant progress could not be made until DESE’s questions were answered.

Kinsella told the Greenfield Recorder the district and School Committee needed another look at the financial details of the move before making a decision, but the proposed program was not completed to the point where it could provide clear insight.

“I committed to taking another look at the numbers, the finances around this,” Kinsella said by phone. “We found that we couldn’t actually do the type of thorough number crunching to bring back a financial outlook to the committee because the proposed program had not been sufficiently developed for us to run really clear numbers.”

According to Kinsella, the first mention of a sixth-grade transition came in an October 2019 meeting, with a vote taken by the School Committee in December 2020. In the time since the vote was taken, the school received the letter from DESE in February, previous Superintendent Jonathan Scagel resigned in August, and Kinsella’s review of the transition’s finances came in October and November.

Several committee members expressed frustration this week about the lack of movement and clarity on the transition plan, which Kinsella said probably comes from the change in administration, along with the revelation that they cannot get a fleshed-out financial outlook on the transition. Kinsella added this process has been painful for the community and the district is working to provide a solution.

“I think what happened is when there was a transition in this office, someone comes in with a new set of administrative eyes, and I had a lot of questions about the process,” Kinsella said. “What a challenge for staff and students and families to hear there will be a transition, there will be no transition, there might be a transition. … It dismays me that we have put our community through this.”

Kinsella said one way to develop a more coherent plan for the move — and the district as a whole — would be to take a step back and evaluate the whole picture with the committee, school district and community participating.

“As we build next year’s budget, that is a great time to be thinking about what resources we need to conduct a collaborative, comprehensive review of the district’s vision, programs and goals,” Kinsella said. “A discussion about grade configuration would fit in nicely with a larger review.”

There are no set deadlines at this point, but Kinsella said crafting fiscal year 2023’s budget is the first step.

The School Committee spent more than an hour discussing the topic Monday, including potentially rescinding a previous vote to transition students in fall 2022. Members stopped short of rescinding the vote, however, because they felt it would show a lack of confidence in their ability to navigate the transition.

“If they read in the newspaper that we have rescinded this decision, they’re going to lose confidence that we’re serious about this,” said Leyden member Karen O’Neil. “(Rescinding it) says we’ve done a U-turn and we’re going to start over.”

Burke noted the vote to postpone the transition does not really change anything because the transition cannot even continue if the committee wanted it to.

“We cannot move forward without approval of the state,” Burke said, “so it’s almost by default paused.”

School Committee members said their previous votes had been taken without a full view of the situation.

“I want to say the decision we made did not have all of the pertinent information we have been looking for,” said Warwick member Alan Genovese. “We had some misinformation, some information that was missing … and ended up with the committee deciding to go forward. (Kinsella) has filled in the gaps for us with new information that I think is critical going forward.”

Northfield member Reina Dastous said she feels there has been almost no progress over the past year.

“A year ago I felt like there wasn’t enough of a plan,” Dastous explained. “And here we are a year later, and I feel that plan hasn’t been developed sufficiently.”

Leyden member Robin Neipp asked where the Sixth Grade PVRS Committee, which is responsible for planning the transition, was.

“Where are they tonight?” Neipp asked. “I don’t understand. We have a committee that is directly working on this.”

Kinsella said she didn’t ask the committee, which hasn’t met since September, to join Monday’s meeting because its members are unable to do anything until the school district contacts DESE.

“When I realized the impact of the February letter from DESE, it became clear that further movement forward by a transition committee would not be an effective use of anyone’s time given that these larger, overarching questions are outstanding,” Kinsella replied. “Having that committee continue its work without answering all the questions in this letter just didn’t seem wise.”

The motivation behind the transition lies partially in concerns about space in the elementary schools.

“I do have significant concerns over the space constraints at the elementary schools, and our area of growth is in pre-K and those early grade levels,” Burke said. “We needed space in the elementary schools … that’s what was really focused on.”

Warwick member Nathan Swartz said they can come up with other solutions to crowding if necessary.

“What’s driving this is crowded classrooms in elementary schools,” Swartz said. “There are creative ways to solve this problem and no doubt in my mind we will come up with solutions to this.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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