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My Turn: Pioneer leader responds to concerns about HEART data as school closures loom



Chair, PVRS district School Committee
Thursday, January 10, 2019

Editor’s Note: This column by the leader of the Pioneer Valley Regional School Committee is in response to a recent editorial about a proposal to close elementary schools in Leyden and Warwick.

Dear Pioneer Valley Regional School Community, In a Dec. 26 editorial, the Recorder suggested that the School Committee and the public had questioned data the Abrahams Group consultants had prepared for the HEART Committee. The Recorder’s editorial suggested the need for more substantiation of the basis for these questions. The editor has invited me, as chair of the PVRS School Committee, to explain more about the concerns expressed at a Dec. 5 forum and at a Dec. 13 School Committee meeting. I’m happy to clarify. To be clear, this is my response to the concerns raised in the editorial; I am not speaking for the PVRS School Committee.

To understand the challenges that the Pioneer Valley Regional School District is now facing, it’s important to recall a few historical facts. In February 2016, the town leaders of Bernardston encouraged the four towns of the district (Warwick, Northfield, Leyden, and Bernardston) to call together and appoint the members of the HEART Committee. This committee of stakeholders was formed for the purpose of investigating and proposing strategies aimed at achieving greater sustainability. The committee was also specifically asked to address the need to update the PVRS district agreement. Residents understood that school costs were rising at an unsustainable rate; rising expenses and shrinking school-age population were making school funding unsustainable.

Subsequently, the HEART Committee hired the Abrahams Group, a consulting group funded at no cost to taxpayers with a state Community Compacts grant, to gather data intended to support the school district’s sustainability. The Abrahams Group was commissioned to address four areas of inquiry, all focused on helping the district maintain its high educational quality, while offering cost-saving operational efficiencies: (1) the costs and benefits of closing one or two of our smaller schools; (2) analysis of the existing administrative structure, and input on the potential costs and benefits of sharing administration with nearby Gill-Montague and Franklin County Tech districts; (3) data gathering and analysis of the impacts of school choice and charter schools on the district; and (4) preliminary recommendations for the updating of the PVRS District Agreement.

On December 5, the HEART Committee and the PVRS School Committee jointly convened a forum and invited the district’s stakeholders to attend. At this forum, Abrahams Group consultants reported that our current fiscal-year budget was unsustainable when projected out five years. They also presented detailed data on the projected savings should we close Pearl Rhodes Elementary School in Leyden, and less-detailed data on projected savings should we close Warwick Community School in Warwick. In response to feedback from stakeholders at the forum, we requested and received a more detailed analysis of the projected savings for closing Warwick Community School from our Superintendent and Central Administration Team.

Updated analyses of the costs and benefits of school closure will be discussed at a forum scheduled for this coming Wednesday, at 6:30 p.m. at Warwick Elementary School. At the next PVRS School Committee meeting, to be held on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Pioneer Valley Regional School, the School Committee is scheduled to vote on school closure.

For nearly two years, the members of the HEART Committee, composed of parents, educators, administrators, concerned citizens, and town government and school committee representatives, have met bi-monthly to work toward a better understanding of the fiscal challenges facing the district and to work on updating the District Agreement. During a time of turmoil and change, the HEART Committee has remained steadfast in its focus on gathering data intended to help the school district address our current fiscal challenges. The PVRS Financial Director, Tanya Gaylord, has worked collaboratively, throughout the summer and fall, with the Abrahams Group, to clarify the district’s fiscal situation. Our superintendent, Jon Scagel, has also worked with the consultants to gather and verify information, project potential savings, and analyze how the structure of the school district would be impacted by school closure. We expect the data gathered by the consultants to support difficult decision-making, and we want to ensure that the process remains as objective as possible. That was the primary purpose in hiring a third-party consultant, since many of us on both the HEART Committee and the School Committee have strong feelings about our local schools as they currently exist.

The Massachusetts Legislature continues to discuss the urgent need to update the state’s school funding formula, since the existing formula does not cover the true cost of educating our children. Meanwhile, all rural school districts must address the challenge of crafting sustainable districts that their communities can be proud of. The realities of declining enrollment, rising costs, and the limitations of state funding are issues that all rural school districts in Massachusetts are facing.

As a joint member of the PVRS School Committee and the HEART Committee, I want to express my gratitude for the work and devotion of the HEART Committee and the PVRS administrators that have supported this work. The school committee may now use the consultants’ data to make some very difficult and painful decisions. We hope this data helps us sustain our schools’ continued academic excellence while maintaining the future viability of our regional rural school system.

Sue O’Reilly-McRae, Ed. D., can be reached at: oreillymcraes@pvrsdk12.org