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Warwick residents air feelings on potential school closing

  • Pioneer Valley Regional School District administrators held a public forum on Wednesday regarding potentially closing Warwick Community School. Staff Photo/Paul Franz



Staff Writer
Thursday, January 10, 2019

WARWICK — It was standing room only at a forum on school closures this week, until the crowd was moved from Warwick Community School’s cafeteria to the larger school gym.

The Wednesday night meeting was called by Pioneer Valley Regional School District administrators in preparation for a School Committee vote on school closures that had been expected this month, but has since been delayed indefinitely.

The forum was dominated by the townspeople, giving a look into the emotionally complicated conversation that’s bubbling up as the town comes to terms with the possibility of losing its school.

The proposed plan

Closures of Warwick Community School or Leyden’s Pearl Rhodes Elementary School, or both, have been talked about since last spring, when the discovery of a $450,000 deficit gave new urgency to the question of the Pioneer Valley Regional School District’s financial sustainability. But concrete plans for school closures have only been discussed publicly within the last two months.

If Warwick Community School is closed, the students will go to Northfield Elementary School instead, starting this fall, administrators say. The out-of-town school choice students, who make up nearly half of Warwick’s enrollment, would be able to stay in the district.

All of Warwick’s teachers would likely be moved to Northfield as well, administrators expect. Other staff members may be laid off, such as instructional assistants and Principal Elizabeth Musgrave.

Bus rides for elementary students in Warwick would be about 15 to 20 minutes longer than they are now, making Warwick’s bus ride times comparable to those in the other towns of the district, district Finance Director Tanya Gaylord said.

Decisions on closing one or both of the district’s two smaller elementary schools were expected to come at the School Committee meeting on Thursday. But due to a legal complication, the votes cannot be taken yet, and likely will not happen until April or March, according to Superintendent Jon Scagel.

The opinions

“We are talking about closing a level-one school in an energy-efficient building, to send them to a level-two school in a run-down building. Where is the educational advantage in that?” said Dan Dibble, the pastor of Warwick’s Trinitarian Congregational Church, summing up an opinion held by many in town. “We have educated children that are at the top level of our district, and we’re sending them down to be among a lot of kids who don’t know them, among a community that does not know them, and we’re doing that quickly. How does that advance the education of our children?”

School Committee Chairwoman Sue O’Reilly-McRae, who lives in Warwick, disagreed with the sentiment.

“Every teacher, every student, every building in our district is exceptional. It’s a dead end to try to say, ‘Keep us open because we’re better.’ I don’t think it’s befitting to us as a town,” she said.

In several appeals to the crowd, O’Reilly-McRae urged her town to broaden its perspective, arguing that the school system’s financial troubles are symptomatic of a larger economic trend that is stretching resources thin in rural communities everywhere.

“When I hear people talking about, ‘We’ll just get out of the district and that will solve our problem,’ that feels ridiculous to me,” she said. “It’s much bigger than the school. This town has to get going and get real about how we’re going to sustain ourselves.”

That didn’t stop some Warwick residents from arguing in favor of leaving the district. Selectboard Chairman Doc Pruyne warned that if Warwick leaves the district, the schools would lose $1,312,494 that he estimates the town brings in through its payments and through the school choice students it draws. He even walked the crowd through his calculations.

“That’s what you’re risking,” Pruyne said. “It seems to me that’s not really a smart thing to do, especially if you’re in the financial bind you’re in.”

“Nobody here wants to cut,” O’Reilly-McRae said. “We love our school, we love our community, we love our district. We’ve got to problem solve and not attack each other. No one is trying to break anything. We’re trying to keep a quality school system together. … We have a collective problem. We have to figure out how to solve it.”

Scagel and Northfield Elementary School Principal Megan Desmarais spoke briefly about the process of welcoming Warwick’s students to Northfield, if Warwick’s school is closed. Scagel pointed to the successful integration of Leyden’s fifth- and sixth-grade students into Bernardston Elementary School last fall as a model of what would likely be done, such as organizing visits to the school and orientation programs for both students and parents. Desmarais suggested that the name of the school could be changed to reflect its new status.

“If this happens, it’s not about closing this school and having Warwick’s kids go to Northfield. That’s a loss,” Desmarais said. “If it happens, the conversation needs to be about how to join two communities in one building.”