State requests more info about proposed sixth-grade move to Pioneer

  • People protest in front of the Northfield Town Hall earlier this month against the plan to move sixth-graders to Pioneer Valley Regional School from the two remaining elementary schools in the district. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2021 6:25:28 PM

NORTHFIELD — Just hours after Pioneer Valley Regional School District Superintendent Jonathan Scagel sent a letter to the School Committee to urge it to delay moving the sixth grade to Pioneer, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) requested more information as it prepared to rule on the committee’s Dec. 10 vote supporting the move.

On Monday, DESE Associate Commissioner John Sullivan requested extended documentation on the plan to move sixth graders from the two remaining district elementary schools to Pioneer this fall. Earlier the same day, Scagel, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, sent a letter of his own to School Committee members asking them to delay the move until the fall of 2022, as well as approve the proposed fiscal year 2022 budget. Sullivan confirmed he “did not communicate with the superintendent prior to the letter being sent.”

Sullivan’s letter was shared with the full School Committee by Vice Chair Alan Genovese on Wednesday, ahead of Thursday’s special meeting that had an agenda item to “Discuss and vote on the 6th grade reconfiguration.” The meeting was scheduled following Scagel’s recommendation to vote to delay the move.

Speaking Thursday, Genovese said Sullivan’s letter provided a good overview of what DESE required for its review, especially in regard to community and stakeholder input.

“I see this as an opportunity to use this (Sullivan’s letter) as a blueprint going forward, if that becomes the wish of the School Committee, to revise this and do this a little differently, and use a more inclusive process,” Genovese said.

The School Committee’s decision to move sixth graders to Pioneer, which has students in grades seven through 12, has drawn complaints from many parents who cited the impact the pandemic has had on their children’s learning. They requested a delay.

Sullivan wrote that DESE is “most interested in the educational impact on all of the students, particularly those in the 6th grade, the financial impact to the district and member towns, and the outreach that has taken place to involve parents, students and community members.”

In his letter, Sullivan said DESE had reviewed documentation sent to the fiscal overseer and his officer to support the proposed move. Per Massachusetts General Law Acts of 2018, Chapter 295, Section 3(b), “notwithstanding the regional school district agreement, the commissioner may undertake a review that may result in the closing, reconfiguration or consolidation of school buildings.”

“The legislation allows the commissioner to do a study, but in order to do the study based on the legislation we would have needed more documentation,” Sullivan said, speaking by phone Thursday.

Specifically, Sullivan requested the district provide more information pertaining to the sixth grade reconfiguration task force, which assembled the Dec. 10 presentation on the proposed move. The letter requests: the names of members on the task force; when it was formed; if its meetings were open to the public and posted; if the public attended the meetings; if agendas and minutes are available for review; and what efforts were taken for outreach to the community, parents and students after the formation of the task force.

Additionally, Sullivan’s letter requests information on “the fiscal analysis undertaken to determine the impact of the proposed move on the FY22 budget and future years’ budgets.” This information pertains to potential savings or cost increases as a result of the move, whether permanent or temporary, and how any increases might be funded.

The letter also asks for the impact on transportation costs, routes and a description of any expected efficiencies, as well as the potential need for and cost of any building modifications to accommodate the proposed move. (School Committee members have said interior doors may be needed to separate the upper and lower class halls.)

Another request was the current and projected enrollments at the fifth and sixth grades for the 2021 to 2022 school year. The School Committee’s Dec. 10 presentation addressed total enrollments for each school, but did not specifically state the enrollment for the fifth grade and sixth grade classes, respectively.

Sullivan also asked for clarification on information relating to additional staffing at the middle school, and the fiscal impact of staffing changes. Pioneer Director of Finance Tanya Gaylord said at a public hearing on the proposed $14,851,290 fiscal year 2022 budget earlier this month that the cost related to the sixth grade move totals about $173,000, which involves adding four full-time teachers, a part-time adjustment counselor and a part-time physical education teacher, as well as making the dean of students an assistant principal.

Sullivan’s letter also inquired about the “potential curricular, extracurricular and social benefits and/or drawbacks” of the proposed move, and what analysis had been undertaken of the impact on educational programs, services and extracurricular opportunities in the remaining elementary schools.

Scagel’s letter Monday stated there have been significant reductions to middle school programs and services in years’ past, and the Pioneer school district has “an opportunity to address this for the fall.” For example, the part-time art teacher included in the budget would restore a position that has been missing in the curriculum for the last couple of years.

The letter also noted that in the Dec. 10 presentation, “much of the cited research pointed to the positive benefits of keeping sixth grade students in an elementary setting.” Sullivan requested that Pioneer “explain the basis for the conclusion that the proposed move is ‘educationally sound,’ despite research that seemed to offer a contrary position relative to test performance and discipline and behavioral issues.”

“We are also interested in any discussions that may have occurred with parents and staff on how the proposed move might impact students at a time when they have already undergone a significant change in their educational experience due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sullivan wrote at the end of his letter.

He asked the School Committee to provide the requested information by March 12 so that DESE “may better analyze the impact of the proposed move on the students of the district and the sustainability and stability of the district moving forward.”

When told on Thursday of Scagel’s recommendation to delay the move, Sullivan said “if there is no plan to move the sixth grade, we don’t need the data. In the event that the issue resurfaces in the future, the letter spells out the documentation the commissioner would need for a review.”

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




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