Gill-Montague, Pioneer regionalization exploratory committee holds first meeting

  • Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School. Staff File Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2019 6:27:12 PM
Modified: 11/15/2019 6:26:58 PM

MONTAGUE — The six towns of the Gill-Montague Regional School District and the Pioneer Valley Regional School District have officially begun talks regarding a potential merger of the two school systems.

An exploratory committee was officially established on Wednesday. The committee has members from each of the six relevant towns; but the group is not yet at its maximum membership capacity of 18 members, or three members from each town.

The committee chair is Alan Genovese, a Warwick resident and retired school administrator. Genovese’s most recent jobs were superintendent positions in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District from 2005 to 2010, then as superintendent in Winchester, N.H. from 2017 to 2018. He was also on the HEART Committee (Honest Education and Retaining Trust), which was set up by the towns of the Pioneer school district to investigate long-term issues regarding education.

A few notable public officials are members of the new exploratory committee, including Heather Katsoulis, the vice chair of the Gill-Montague School Committee; David Young, Warwick’s town coordinator and a member of the Pioneer School Committee; and Greg Snedeker, who is on the Gill Selectboard.

Also at the meeting was Jay Barry, a consultant from the Massachusetts Association of Regional Schools. Last year, Barry contributed to a report that summarizes the financial situations of Gill-Montague and Pioneer, and that identifies potential areas for collaboration between the two school districts.

Wednesday’s discussion did not focus on specific points of how regionalization may work, but gave a rough outline of what the committee’s work may involve in the coming years.

The initial exploration is expected to take up to two years, Barry said. At that point the committee will recommend for or against some kind of merger. If it recommends the merger, there will be at least another year of work.

In the end, the decision comes down to votes from all six Annual Town Meetings. If any one town votes against it, the deal won’t go though, Barry said.

Until then, the committee’s work involves reviewing the different legal configurations that a merger may take, and evaluating how the financial arrangements would work. Typically, Barry said, one school district absorbs the other, or the two both dissolve and reform as a new one.

Committee members who spoke up on Wednesday leaned toward dissolving the two districts and creating a new one, but added that they were interested in considering any options there may be.

Those involved in the discussion acknowledged that a merger probably would not save the towns a substantial amount of money, but could create a school system with better curricular and extracurricular offerings than the two present systems have.

Both school districts have been forced to reduce their offerings in recent years due to long-term trends of declining enrollment. Most notably, Pioneer this spring closed its smallest school, Pearl Rhodes Elementary School in Leyden. Turners Falls High School this year did not have enough students to fill a football team, and is now sharing a team with Mohawk Trail Regional School.

There was also a general consensus that any merger would most likely affect the secondary schools most prominently, and the elementary schools would be left alone for the most part.

Barry, the consultant, warned committee members to think about the financial realities of whatever arrangements they look into early on in their discussions.

In mergers of differently sized towns, the smaller ones tend to benefit more than the larger ones, he said. Talks between Amherst and Pelham fell through when they finally looked into the finances of the deal they were considering. Amherst has a population of about 35,000; Pelham, about 1,300.

Here, the differences between the towns are not so extreme, but still considerable. In the Gill-Montague district, Montague has about 8,500 people, Gill about 1,500. In Pioneer, Northfield has about 3,000, Bernardston about 2,000, Leyden about 700, Warwick about 800.

“I don’t mean to be glib about this. We always talk about how the kids come first, and they do,” Barry said. “But in a situation like this, the finances are pretty important.”

He continued, “If it isn’t going to work, then you don’t want to spend time looking into these things.”

The next meeting of the exploratory committee is scheduled for Jan. 8 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gill-Montague Senior Center in Turners Falls.

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-772-0261, ext. 261.

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