Pioneer superintendent backs delaying sixth-grade move

  • People demonstrate in front of Northfield Town Hall earlier this month in objection to the plan to move the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s sixth-graders from the two elementary schools to Pioneer. Superintendent Jonathan Scagel wrote a letter to the School Committee this week asking that it reconsider its December decision. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • People demonstrate in front of Northfield Town Hall earlier this month in objection to the plan to move the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s sixth-graders from the two elementary schools to Pioneer. Superintendent Jonathan Scagel wrote a letter to the School Committee this week asking that it reconsider its December decision. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/23/2021 5:06:43 PM

NORTHFIELD — Pioneer Valley Regional School District Superintendent Jonathan Scagel has asked School Committee members in a letter to delay the proposed sixth-grade move for one year, as well as approve a $14,851,290 fiscal year 2022 budget.

Before the School Committee can move forward on this, Scagel explained that a member who voted in the affirmative during the original December vote regarding moving sixth-graders from the two elementary schools to Pioneer Valley Regional School in the fall of 2021 would need to make a motion to reconsider that vote. If the School Committee votes in favor of reconsideration, a member can then make a new motion to delay the sixth-grade move until the fall of 2022.

If that new vote passes, it takes the place of the December decision. If it fails, the December vote still stands.

Should the sixth-grade move be delayed, Scagel wrote it would give the school district “additional time to gather input from students, families, staff and other stakeholders, and develop a comprehensive transition plan, inclusive of our community, to create a state-of-the-art middle school model at Pioneer.”

The School Committee’s vote to move sixth-graders to the middle school drew complaints — and a protest in front of Northfield Town Hall — from many parents who cited the impact the pandemic has had on their children. They requested a delay.

School Committee member David Young said the letter from Scagel provided “welcomed” and “needed leadership” on the matter.

“I’m very pleased that he talked about a plan, goals, community input — those were my main things,” commented School Committee member Michele Giarusso.

The sixth-grade move “is not a bad concept” Giarusso added, but she does not think there has been enough planning and input. While she acknowledged some parents who said young students are “resilient” and would adjust to the change, she still does not feel it is a good time to make the change, given the ongoing education challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Phases

Phase I of Scagel’s proposed plan, as detailed in his letter, is to vote on a fiscal year 2022 budget without the sixth-grade move. However, the budget would retain expenses to offer more opportunities for seventh- and eighth-grade students in the fall.

“As you know, there have been significant reductions to our middle school programs and services, and we have an opportunity to address this for the fall by keeping some recommended positions in place for next year, such as the middle school art teacher and adjustment counselor, which will be able to assist during the transition process,” Scagel wrote to School Committee members.

He said other positions in the budget specific to the sixth-grade move can be reassessed during the planning process. These include: the switch from a dean of students to assistant principal, an additional special education teacher, an additional part-time physical educational teacher, and the removal of expenses for supplies needed to move the sixth grade.

Per recommendation of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) and the vote taken at the most recent Budget Subcommittee meeting, Scagel recommended the total budget remain at $14,851,290. He said this would result in a decrease in the amount of School Choice money being used.

Phase II would see implementation of the sixth-grade transition plan.

Preparation and planning

In the letter, Scagel wrote that district administrators have repeatedly said if the move were to happen, it needed to be decided and voted on early enough for preparation and planning, “and of course be funded.”

“The actual vote was in December. We are almost into March, and we do have to recognize that people are experience pandemic fatigue,” Scagel wrote. “There is simply not enough time for a more inclusive transition process to occur in a way that is in the best interest of students, staff, families and our community.”

While Scagel recognizes not everyone will agree with the recommendation, he said it is important to keep the community engaged in supporting children’s education, “not only next year, but in subsequent years.”

In regards to approving the budget, which received a tied 6-6 vote from the School Committee earlier this month, Scagel said going into a one-twelfth budget would be “devastating” to the district. He said he spoke with the district overseer, who supports his two-phase plan. He said he also reached out to DESE Commissioner Jeffrey Riley’s office, asking him not to act on the sixth-grade move until the Pioneer School Committee can “come together and pass a budget that supports our district’s educational plan.”

Scagel recommended a special meeting be held to discuss the move and the budget. He urged committee members “to not rush this process” and to “work together with all interested stakeholders” to ensure “the transition, middle school upgrades, and elementary and secondary programs and services” are successful for all students.

A special School Committee meeting agenda for Thursday at 7 p.m. was posted to the PVRSDk12.org website on Tuesday morning. The agenda includes “Discussion and vote on 6th grade reconfiguration.”

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

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