BERNARDSTON — Partly hoping to create possibilities for district-wide savings, North County officials are forming a committee to recommend changes to the regional agreement under which all Pioneer Valley Regional School District towns operate.
Members of the selectboards and finance committees from Northfield, Bernardston, Leyden and Warwick, along with Superintendent Ruth Miller and the Pioneer School Committee, all attended a joint meeting this week at the Bernardston Senior Center to discuss the regional agreement, as well as district consolidation and budget control.
The Bernardston Board of Selectmen organized the meeting to foster an exchange of ideas concerning how to handle Pioneer’s growing deficit and allow for “a viable school district in five or 10 years,” said Bernardston Selectman Robert Raymond.
However, as the 40 meeting attendees exchanged ideas for possible district consolidation, it became clear that the regional agreement would make change difficult.
The regional agreement is a document created by the four Pioneer towns — Leyden, Warwick, Bernardston and Northfield — outlining the rules under which the towns will operate by joining the school district together. According to the regional agreement, the document was approved in 1991 and hasn’t been amended in any way since 1999, though the nature of the district has changed significantly.
“The district agreement limits everything,” said Sue O’Reilly-McRae, a Pioneer parent and a member of the Community Committee. “Until it gets opened up, we have no options.”
For example, Leyden Selectman Lance Fritz said, Section III of the agreement reads that “all residents of the member towns in grades kindergarten to six … will receive their education in facilities located in their respective towns.” Exceptions are made only for special needs students, and students for whom “a reassignment is prudent” and the school committee has approved their attending another school.
Thus, if North County officials decided it was financially necessary to close one or more of the district’s elementary schools, it would be impossible without violating the agreement. While discussing district consolidation, multiple attendees proposed closing the district’s smallest school, Pearl Rhodes Elementary School in Leyden.
Pearl Rhodes’ enrollment at the start of the school year was 39 students, with 16 through School Choice and the other 23 being residents. According to Jeffrey Neipp, chairman of the Leyden Board of Selectmen, the school’s proposed budget for the 2017-2018 school year is $527,000.
“It just doesn’t make sense to spend nearly $600,000 a year for 20 of our kids to go to a school,” Neipp said.
“I think you could make a very good case that the kids might be better off going to Bernardston,” suggested Jack Killeen, a Bernardston resident and member of the Community Committee. Lacking a gym at Pearl Rhodes, many Leyden children already play sports in Bernardston or Greenfield.
However, School Committee member Sharon Fontaine noted the transportation problems that would arise from bussing Leyden children to another town.
“Those kids would have to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “That seems unrealistic.”
By the end of the meeting, though no decision had been made to close Pearl Rhodes, it was agreed that the regional agreement requires updating. The district’s policy subcommittee is already analyzing the agreement to bring it in line with recent state laws.
Jane Dutcher, chairwoman of the Bernardston Finance Committee, proposed forming a committee to recommend changes to the agreement.
“You sit in your living room and read it and come up with recommendations, and so do I, but we need to congeal,” she said.
After discussion, it was decided to bring together two members of each town, two school committee members and the superintendent for a new committee. The group of North County officials will reconvene for another joint meeting Jan. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Bernardston Senior Center, during which they’ll offer names of potential members.
Other budgetary suggestions included using free cash to decrease the $201,000 school lunch fund deficit, and decreasing staffing levels at Pioneer Valley Regional School while using technology and distance learning to link classrooms in various districts.