Town officials talk voting thresholds, term limits in Pioneer’s regional agreement

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-14-2024 2:02 PM

BERNARDSTON — As work continues on the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s district agreement, town officials in the three member towns are conducting their own review of the revisions at the same time.

At the Bernardston Senior Center Thursday evening, the Bernardston Finance Committee and Selectboard were joined by the Leyden Selectboard, as well as representatives from Northfield’s Selectboard and Finance Committee to come up with some recommendations for the School Committee’s latest revisions to the regional agreement, which has not been updated in more than two decades.

The move to hold three-town joint meetings, Northfield Finance Committee Chair Dan Campbell said, is an opportunity for the communities to work together and relay consistent messaging to the School Committee during this critical process.

“I think our towns are looking at helping each other out now,” he said. “I think we’re in a better position now than we were even a year ago.”

The main consensus among the present boards was to increase some of the voting thresholds in provisions related to approval of the district budget and closing schools.

Currently, the School Committee’s revisions state a school can be closed by a two-thirds majority vote with at least one vote coming from the community in which the school is being closed. The town boards’ preference is that at least two School Committee members from the community approve of the closure for it to move forward.

“I like the idea of having at least two members from that town,” said Bernardston Selectboard member Brian Hervieux, who emphasized that at the end of the day it comes down to six peoples’ votes to close the school.

The other voting threshold the boards would like to see raised is the one to approve the district’s budget. The current language states there needs to be a two-thirds vote by the committee and then Town Meeting approval from at least two of the three towns. Instead of this, the boards stated they would like to see it changed to unanimous approval from all three towns.

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With Leyden always being the last to hold its Town Meeting, its vote to approve or reject the budget often doesn’t mean anything if Bernardston and Northfield already gave their approval.

Bernardston Finance Committee Chair Jane Dutcher and Campbell said ensuring all three towns have a stake in the budget approval process means they’ll have to cooperate and support one another.

The boards did ultimately support revisions related to term limits on the School Committee, with current language stating no member shall serve more than two consecutive four-year terms.

A concern was raised about the ongoing struggle in nearly every community to find volunteers for town government — Leyden’s third School Committee seat has been vacant for more than a year — and the loss of institutional knowledge, but the boards ultimately agreed that turnover could be beneficial.

“There was a lot of stuff I didn’t like [in the past] and would have been solved by recycling that School Committee,” Hervieux said. “New ideas keep people honest, for a lack of a better term.”

The three towns are planning on convening for another review session on Sept. 12.

In the meantime, Michele Giarusso, chair of the School Committee’s District Agreements and Community Relations Subcommittee, said the committee is continuing its own work and the revisions have gone to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to be reviewed. Once reviewed by DESE, the proposal will go to the towns.

While the meeting was posted as a three-town discussion, the Leyden Finance Committee did not attend, nor did enough members of the Northfield Finance Committee and Selectboard to constitute a quorum. Campbell was joined by Anthony Matteo for Northfield’s Finance Committee, while Northfield Selectboard Chair Bernie Boudreau was the sole representative of his board.

Bernardston Finance Committee member Stephen Nestanpower expressed extreme frustration with the lack of attendance at the meeting and said that while each of the three towns have their own priorities, they are showing “no real interest in developing” a solution.

“I am appalled. … Shame on you guys,” Nestanpower said before walking out at the start of the meeting. “How can we conduct business when half of the people who have an interest are not here?”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.