Rural school leader on hesitation to regionalize: ‘I don’t see things getting any easier’

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School. Recorder Staff/Shelby Ashline

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, January 30, 2018

NORTHFIELD — Steve Hemman, assistant executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools, had a strong message for the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee: Sharing services with other districts may soon be the only option.

“You should start looking at (opportunities to share), because I don’t see things getting any easier,” Hemman said. “I think you’re really going to be pushed into doing something. You’re not going to see any windfalls from the state.”

Pioneer is one of many local districts that has struggled to craft balanced budgets in the face of declining enrollment and what local officials consider insufficient state aid. Last year, the high school and middle school saw significant staff cuts, while assessments to towns continue to raise.

Hemman recommended seeking intermunicipal agreements between districts. Given that Superintendent Ruth Miller is not renewing her contract and will end her employment with Pioneer after June 30, the district has already toyed with the idea of sharing a superintendent and business manager with another district, but without reaching concrete decisions.

Intermunicipal agreements, Hemman said, would allow for district autonomy but also shared services, noting districts often avoid regionalizing out of fear of losing their identity.

“How much do we want to pay to have efficient, easy operation?” he asked. “And the kids don’t get the best education either.”

Gill-Montague Regional School District Superintendent Michael Sullivan was also present at the Thursday meeting to speak about the $110,000 grant for regionalization and shared services study that Gill-Montague received with Pioneer and Franklin County Technical schools. The grant will fund an analysis of the cost benefits of long-term consolidation.

Sullivan said he’d like to organize a steering committee with superintendents from the three districts and a handful of School Committee members to consider shared services, which could include superintendents, business managers, technology directors, curriculum coordinators, food service directors, facilities managers, librarians, occupational and physical therapists and psychologists.

Perhaps, Sullivan proposed, districts could split costs of shared employees based on the number of students per district. For example, if Pioneer and Gill-Montague were to share an administrator, Gill-Montague would carry 52.3 percent of the cost based on enrollment numbers, Sullivan said.

A sense of urgency

Hemman also stressed a need for Pioneer to get the ball rolling to decide who will run the district when the new fiscal year arrives in five months.

Though the School Committee voted in November to pursue hiring a part-time business manager, and voted in early January to hire an interim superintendent, both processes have stalled. Part of the holdup involved securing a job description for Miller so her position could be posted.

“This has got to be — it is my recommendation to you — a priority,” Hemman said of finding a new superintendent. “This is the end of January. You usually start (looking) in November … You’ve gotta make some decisions quickly.”

Reach Shelby Ashline at: sashline@recorder.com

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