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Leverett, Shutesbury residents voice concerns over school regionalization plans

While members of the Regional School District Planning committees of Leverett and Shutesbury say a plan to regionalize the elementary schools in Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury will streamline administration and cut costs, community members who attended public forums last week expressed concern that it would mean losing the autonomy and unique programs and put teachers’ jobs at risk.

The forums, held in Leverett and Shutesbury, provided an opportunity for the committee members to answer questions and get community feedback in advance of a vote by representatives of all four towns Saturday on whether to proceed.

The towns are already regionalized at the Grade 7-12 level. They share the Amherst Regional Middle School and Amherst Regional High School.

The committees are considering two plans for regionalization. The first would be to regionalize pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 into one district in which there would be just one school committee, and one superintendent for the entire four-town region. One of the benefits of this plan, officials say, would be continuity, making it easier to track students throughout their education, officials say.

The second plan is to keep the secondary district as it is and regionalize pre-kindergarten through Grade 6 separately. In this case there would be two school districts, two school committees and one superintendent. The administration for grades 7 through 12 would remain unchanged.

In addition to streamlining the administrative staff of the schools and reducing the amount of paperwork, the planning committee members pointed out that teachers would have the option of transferring to a different school in the region or splitting classes between schools. A teacher whose job would have been cut at one school could instead move to another school, they said.

Community members in both Leverett and Shutesbury, however, expressed concerns that regionalization would mean a cut in school programs, a loss of control over school administration and budget, and potentially the loss of teachers as the smaller schools take on Amherst’s financial woes.

Dan Hayes of Shutesbury said he believes that regionalization would force all the elementary schools in the region to offer the same programs, which he said could lead to the loss of unique programs in the Shutesbury and Leverett schools.

“I’m concerned about a loss of local control,” he said.

Several committee members countered that they believe teachers, not administrators, are what make the schools special.

“Teachers are the fabric of each of the school,” said Michael DeChiara, a committee member from Shutesbury. “Everyone’s trying to respect that, and come up with a plan that respects that.”

Another concern expressed was how regionalization would affect the smaller towns financially. Leverett and Shutesbury have been “level-funded” for many years, whereas Amherst is planning to cut programs and teachers, some pointed out.

Shutesbury Elementary School Principal Bob Mahler said that regionalizing could put Shutesbury teachers on a list of layoffs.

“Amherst is cutting five teachers and nine paraprofessionals,” he said Mahler. “Seven teachers (in Shutesbury) don’t have tenure,” which could put them in jeopardy of losing their jobs, he said.

DeChiara assured community members that the committee would not move forward with a plan that would be damaging to the smaller towns.

“We’ve done this to preserve, not hurt, the schools,” he said. “If it looks like it’ll damage Shutesbury, we won’t proceed.”

Rebecca Torres of the Shutesbury planning committee said Saturday’s vote will determine whether the group will spend the next six months drafting a regionalization proposal for the towns to consider. Committee member Elaine Puleo of Shutesbury said that she is listening to everyone’s questions and will vote to proceed only if she feels potential problems can be worked out. Julia Shively of the Leverett planning committee says that while she was neutral when she began work on the issue, she is more in favor of regionalization now.

“I personally believe we should keep moving forward in this process,” she said.

The earliest any regionalization plans would take effect in the schools is fall 2014. For more information about the regionalization process, visit the Regional School District Planning Board website.

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