Pioneer School Committee votes to recommend state close Warwick Community School

  • After nearly a year of uncertainty surrounding the fate of Warwick Community School, the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee voted Thursday night to recommend the state commissioner of education close the elementary school. Staff Photo/ZACK DeLUCA

Staff Writer
Published: 1/19/2020 4:41:43 PM
Modified: 1/19/2020 4:40:44 PM

NORTHFIELD — After nearly a year of back and forth discussion around the fate of Warwick Community School, the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee voted Thursday to recommend the state commissioner of education close the elementary school.

The 7-5 vote saw School Committee members Patricia Shearer of Northfield, Abigail Pratt of Leyden, and all three Warwick members opposed.

The closure is pending action from Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley, and would be effective June 30, 2020. The decision comes nearly a year after the committee voted to close Pearl Rhodes Elementary School in Leyden.

“Clearly, this model doesn’t work for small towns,” said School Committee member Jessica Marshall of Warwick. “This problem is bigger than WCS and it’s going to require creative thinking to solve it.”

Presenting the reasoning

Superintendent Jonathan Scagel led a presentation citing decline in district income and enrollment, and increasing expenses, as reasoning for the decision.

“The consolidation is necessary to maintain essential staff and programs district-wide, and to help our remaining schools be operational and sustainable,” Scagel said. “We all recognize the loss to the community of Warwick, but Warwick is an important part of our district and will continue to be after the merger.”

Scagel cited inequities in per pupil costs increasing over time, annual operational costs increasing and state funding remaining stagnant. According to the school district’s Food Services Director Michael Onorato, the lunch program operates with an approximate $49 per day loss at Warwick Community School, while all other schools see a profit of at least $60 per day. He projected an $8,796 loss for the current fiscal year in food expenses alone.

Other financial constraints include annual contractual increases in salaries and town requests to keep budgets steady from year to year. The school district’s Director of Finance Tanya Gaylord said a no-increase budget isn’t feasible to ensure quality education. With level funding, the current model would continue to require staff cuts and reduced services to students.

According to Gaylord, a total net cost of $196,347 would be eliminated through the merger. This includes approximately $84,000 in facilities costs, $68,000 for the school nurse and $40,000 from cutting the school principal salary. Scagel and Gaylord cautioned listeners during the presentation not to assume the budget would decrease by this amount; rather, the number shows what could be reallocated across the district.

Claire Brennan, an English teacher at Pioneer and president of the Pioneer Valley Regional Education Association, which is made up of district staff members, said members took a vote on supporting the merger. Brennan said 59 supported it, one did not and four abstained.

According to Scagel, the recommendation to merge Warwick Community School with Northfield Elementary School for the 2020 to 2021 school year was discussed and unanimously agreed upon by the administrative team consisting of himself, all four school principals, director of special education, curriculum coordinator/grants manager and the director of finance during a meeting Jan. 8.

Warwick Community School Principal Christine Mullen thanked Warwick residents for their “tireless efforts” to keep their school open, but noted that difficult decisions must be made to provide the entire district with equal education opportunities.

“I see no other option,” Mullen said, “and it is heartbreaking.”

Citizens’ comments

Michelle Giarusso, chair of the HEART (“Honest Education and Retaining Trust”) Committee, said her group had investigated the district’s financial future, and recognized it would inevitably need to close the two smaller elementary schools in Leyden and Warwick.

Though Warwick Selectboard Chair Lawrence “Doc” Pruyne was unable to speak within the 20-minute public comment session, he sent a letter to Commissioner Riley ahead of Thursday’s meeting requesting he wait to make a decision until after a prescheduled meeting with the Warwick Selectboard in March. A letter from Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, was also sent to School Committee members.

“We respect (the School Committee’s) deliberations and process,” the letter reads, “but did feel that it was our job to bring our constituents’ concerns to your direct attention given the high-stakes nature of what you are considering.”

Shauna Mallet, of Warwick, currently has two of her three children enrolled in the district. Her oldest child attended Warwick Community School this year, while her son Liam attended Northfield Elementary for kindergarten after the School Committee voted last year not to keep a kindergarten class in Warwick, due to low enrollment.

“Liam will not be going to Northfield for first grade next year,” Mallet said, speaking by phone ahead of Thursday’s meeting. She said she is interested in transferring her children to school in Gill, but she cannot apply until May.

During Thursday’s meeting, Mallet cited a poll from the “Warwick L-ternative” Facebook page. As of 4 p.m. Friday, 11 voters said they were a School Choice family who would not stay in the district if Warwick Community School closed, 10 said they were a Warwick family that would not stay and eight voted as “undecided.” Mallet said the School Committee’s actions were “scaring potential families away.”

If Warwick students attend Northfield Elementary next year, they would have a 45-minute bus ride to and from school and would likely transfer buses at Town Hall, according to Pam Reipold, executive vice president of operations for the bus company Travel Kuz. The extended time on the bus was a concern for both Warwick residents attending Thursday’s meeting and School Committee members.

Warwick residents, members of the Education Advisory Committee and town officials have said they are not done exploring ways to keep their school open. The Selectboard scheduled a joint meeting with the Education Advisory and Finance committees set for Tuesday at 7 p.m. Items on its agenda include “discussion of School Committee actions related to Warwick Community School and town’s options and responses.”

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.




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