Pioneer School Committee members express hesitation over merger prospect

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. Staff File Photo/Paul Franz

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 11-20-2023 12:26 PM

NORTHFIELD — Just days after more than 40 town officials, school representatives and other stakeholders convened to consider what regionalization of the Gill-Montague and Pioneer Valley regional school districts might entail, the Pioneer School Committee had a brief discussion of its own on the matter.

As the planning board continues to work toward making a recommendation for or against a merger, Pioneer School Committee Chair and Six Town Regionalization Planning Board member Reina Dastous said School Committee members should have a conversation to share their opinions on the idea.

“We’ve been getting questions from town officials and community members about the Six Town Planning Board and where that fits into what we do,” Dastous said. “We haven’t had a discussion for a while and I thought it was time to revisit the topic.”

On Nov. 14, the planning board laid out some cost estimates and budget adjustments that would result from a merger. No decisions were made as it was an informational meeting with the intention of, moving forward, having each town individually discuss what was presented.

The Pioneer School Committee also took no action, although last week’s meeting agenda listed the topic as “School Committee discussion of position on proposed merger (vote),” which Dastous said was a placeholder in case they did vote on something.

While not every member shared their opinion, those who did were mostly against the idea of merging Pioneer with Gill-Montague due to concerns about losing their district identity, the improving financial health of Pioneer, and what Northfield member Stephen Martin framed as a lack of a “robust and compelling reason for the towns to create a merger by year three” of the planning board’s work.

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At the Six Town Regionalization Planning Board meeting, Chair Alan Genovese shared potential salary schedules that would ensure all teachers earn as much money as they make right now, while also noting a merger could save $316,772 through consolidation of central office staff.

The full presentation from the meeting, including figures on how much each member town would be assessed, can be found at sites.google.com/view/strpb/reportssurveys.

Kicking off Pioneer’s discussion was Director of Finance and Operations Jordan Burns, who laid out the financial health of the district, including the state’s new commitment to funding rural school aid line items.

“The state is showing greater interest in supporting districts in our area. … It doesn’t seem to be temporary, it seems to be an increasing pace for support for districts like ours,” Burns said. “Is the district financially viable going forward? I think we’re doing a good job of making it affordable for the towns.”

He noted that “more students are leaving than we’d like,” but Pioneer could pride itself on being a small, rural district that offers a wide variety of opportunities for kids.

“There isn’t anything I see out there that scares me,” Burns said of future financial projections.

Dastous acknowledged that students leaving is “not an easy fix,” but the district can certainly get buy-in from the students who remain and continue to develop the small-town identity Burns mentioned.

“We certainly have our challenges; all rural districts have their challenges,” she said. “Our students are engaged, they’re involved.”

Of those students leaving, Bernardston member Melissa Gerry said if they are going to Franklin County Technical School, they would still go there if the merger occurs.

Leyden member Karen O’Neil, a former teacher, expressed concern about merging Pioneer’s “heterogeneous grouping” — an inclusive approach that puts students of different abilities together in one class — with Gill-Montague’s “traditional system,” and that any sort of compromise might not work out well.

“It’s been incredibly important to me as a teacher over many years and many different places to meet the needs of all students,” she said. “I find the Pioneer model of heterogeneous grouping really works as a microcosm for democracy. … I think it makes for a much more genuine and lively teaching and learning process.”

O’Neil, who is also a member of the Six Town Regionalization Planning Board, said she feels she hasn’t heard much about how these two “quite different” teaching philosophies could mix. She mentioned they could bring up these concerns at the next meeting.

Next steps

The six towns involved in the potential merger are expected to discuss their opinions among themselves over the coming weeks, while the Six Town Regionalization Planning Board continues its work.

Dastous added it is possible the Six Town Regionalization Planning Board may be “taking a vote soon,” which would then trigger separate votes at each town’s Annual Town Meeting. All six towns would need to approve the idea for the merger to happen.

A similar process just occurred in Berkshire County earlier this month, where eight towns considered merging the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts. That merger was shot down by four of the towns, including an overwhelming rejection in Sheffield, according to the Berkshire Eagle.

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