NORTHFIELD — Based on requests from both elementary schools and the interim superintendent’s recommendation, the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee voted Thursday to close the district’s open School Choice seats at Bernardston and Northfield elementary schools.
Interim Superintendent Patricia Kinsella said the principals at both schools have raised concerns about their school’s abilities to take on more students as short staffing and the pandemic’s continued impact add increased stress to the schools.
“Both of the elementary principals are requesting, because of social-emotional needs, because of academic needs and because of space concerns with COVID in their buildings,” Kinsella said, “they are requesting the School Committee consider closing all of the open School Choice seats” in both schools.
The vote closed six seats at Bernardston Elementary School and 20 seats at Northfield Elementary. Two seats in the senior class at Pioneer Valley Regional School were also closed, but only because graduation requirements can get messy if a student transfers this late into the year, according to Kinsella.
Warwick member David Young asked how much potential revenue the district could lose out on by closing the School Choice seats, which each provide $5,000.
“Theoretically those are worth $5,000 apiece,” Young said. “It’s $150,000 of potential income we’re walking away from. I’ll still vote for it though.”
Kinsella noted the district doesn’t typically receive that many School Choice applications this late into the school year, and any help the teachers and administrators can get would be helpful. She said she is normally “an open-arms person,” but welcoming any additional students could be detrimental to the schools.
“There are some significant behavioral needs,” Kinsella said. “I know that in one of the buildings the principal spent yesterday in meetings with the teachers at each grade level reviewing data about the students both in terms of their behavior and their learning.”
School Committee Chair Julie Burke said she felt similarly to Young in that the district might be losing out on revenue, but the concerns of administrators cannot be ignored.
“I feel the same with David’s sentiments that of course, with declining enrollment, it’s so exciting that more kids want to come, so my knee-jerk reaction is with open arms,” Burke said. “However, I need to defer to the experts and the experts are the building principals, the teachers and our superintendent.”
The School Committee voted unanimously to close the recommended seats to any students not currently in the application process.
In other business, the committee voted to continue meeting in a hybrid format and reduced the maximum meeting time from two and a half hours to two hours. Any meeting that exceeds the time limit will reconvene the next week, which is also the current policy.
“I really feel there is a huge benefit to meeting in person,” Burke said. “We often have audio difficulties with folks at home. … I’m not placing blame, it is what it is.”
Other committee members disagreed in the name of safety and time management.
“I agree, meeting in person is ideal,” Warwick member Nathan Swartz said. “Right now, that’s not always an option. The last meeting we had, a couple of our kids had fellow students who were in COVID protocols, so I didn’t feel like it was appropriate for me to go to the meeting in person.”
Bernardston member Jeanne Milton said hybrid allows each town’s representatives the most opportunity to attend the meeting.
“There are only two of us from Bernardston,” Milton said. “Under doctor’s orders I could not attend tonight, that would only leave us with one person if we couldn’t do Google Meet.”
Northfield member Stephanie Winslow said in-person meetings are the best way to conduct business, especially in executive session.
“I’ve always known a School Committee to be in person,” Winslow said. “If the kids are in school, then we can be here.”
The committee opted to remain in a hybrid format with a 7-3 vote, and will reconvene Thursday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m. to continue discussion on the use of private vehicles for transportation to school activities.
Chris Larabee can be reached at [email protected] or 413-930-4081.