My Turn: Calling for change at Pioneer


Friday, July 13, 2018

More than a month ago, at the request of the Pioneer Valley Regional District School Committee, the four principals at the five schools were tasked again to make more cuts to their respective budgets. They heroically made every effort not to wipe out the “specials” at all schools, but had to reduce the time to half-hour blocks rather than 45 minutes of instruction time. Two part-time music teachers were laid off, leaving one music teacher to teach both the music and instrumental band programs in all four elementary schools, a task that seems impossible to accomplish.

According to reports, there will no longer be instruction for fourth-graders in band, significantly altering the scope of the program. In addition, due to laying off the other sixth-grade teacher, Northfield’s incoming sixth grade will now have an estimated 27 students in one class with currently no identified funds for an instructional aide to support the lone teacher.

All of this, and more, was done to help meet the budget shortfall of almost $2 million. I am distressed not only for my daughter who will be in that sixth-grade class but for all students who will have a diminished educational experience.

This article is hard to write because I have deep respect for those who choose to run and serve on any town committee. Life in a small town, especially as an elected official, is a life that is judged by all. One needs to have a strong ego to tolerate the scrutiny and criticism. I also know that to stay beyond one’s capacity to best serve the demands of the position is also a choice.

At the July 5 School Committee meeting, it was revealed that the school’s shortfall for fiscal year 2019 is now upwards of $600,000. After learning that more students were “choicing” out of Pioneer and fewer students were “choicing” in, the committee decided to take on more debt and borrow the money from the state. While I appreciate their efforts to not cut any more out of the budget, I have grave concerns that these School Committee members do not have the ability to address this fiscal crisis and wonder how this sum will be paid back. Months of watching this committee work ineffectively, combatively and passively has left me with a considerably negative impression.

Despite warnings and advice from administrators, teachers, budget planners, citizens, and even state officials, the committee put forth a budget this March that woefully underestimated the schools’ needs. The skeletal $14 million budget with only $10,000 for any shortfall was a ludicrous amount, as Department of Revenue representative Mary Jane Handy pointed out, given the size of the total budget. More recently, Handy called the School Committee “fiscally irresponsible” and Jack Sullivan, from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said he doubted that the four towns would be comfortable giving this committee more funds to shore up the budget.

The 12 School Committee members, along with the outgoing superintendent, seemed not capable of understanding the demands of this complicated budget. They, over the years, did not pay attention to the changing enrollment figures, ignored rising costs of teachers’ benefits including retirement/insurance payouts and overlooked the shrinking state reimbursement rates for both School Choice/charter schools, and, most glaringly, never tracked the shrinking state transportation reimbursement rates.

They also ignored an important tenet of their position by not advocating for an increased budget at monthly town budget meetings or the annual town meeting. Lastly, they did not take proactive steps years ago, despite smaller enrollment and increasing student costs, to thoughtfully consider and assess the necessity of closing the two smaller elementary schools in Warwick and Leyden or consolidating resources with other communities until recently.

The four towns are made up primarily of middle-class citizens. Of all our students and their families, only 17 percent of students who go to the high school meet the federal guidelines for provisional aid like free or reduced lunch, food stamps or WIC. Our towns are communities that have historically supported the schools thoughtfully, even conservatively.

While there are many options for alternative education, most citizens take pride in the public elementary and high schools with good reason. All four elementary schools have achieved Level I status with Pioneer at a Level 2 and working to increase academic rigor with more Advanced Placement courses, meeting Mass Core standards next year and supporting dual enrollment options with Greenfield Community College.

The sports teams, with the philosophy of inclusivity rather than exclusion, have excellent coaches, with both the boys’ soccer and basketball teams, for example, in state tournaments. The band program continues to excel thanks to the early musical instruction at the elementary schools and the theater/chorus programs astonish all with rich and challenging productions. Pioneer’s Envirothon Team came in third in the state, losing only to two resource-rich suburban schools. All that is laudable in this district should not be stripped away because of the incompetency, neglect and passivity of a School Committee that was not capable of doing the job for which its members were elected.

It is now the responsibility of the citizens to do what is needed and make every effort to alter the makeup of its School Committee by running against these elected officials in both 2018 and 2020 so that the situation that this district has been in never happens again. Seven members are up for re-election. I believe strongly in the principals, administrators and teachers in this district, and applaud them for sticking with the schools and students during this long siege on all the programs that have made the PVRSD strong and healthy. I encourage all interested and engaged people in Leyden, Bernardston, Warwick and Northfield to consider running for School Committee so that their citizens get a School Committee that is worthy of their students.

Deborah Potee is a Northfield resident, taxpayer and PVRSD parent. She is a social worker and clinical case manager at Amherst College.