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Board votes to pursue elementary schools regionalization in Amherst, Leverett and Pelham without Shutesbury

AMHERST — The Regional School District Planning Board voted unanimously on Saturday to pursue the regionalization of pre-kindergarten through Grade 6 in the towns of Amherst, Leverett and Pelham without the participation of Shutesbury.

Those four towns now are regionalized only in Grades 7 through 12. Each town has a school committee for the elementary grades and representatives on a regional board for Grades 7 to 12. The proposal to regionalize schools would streamline the administration, improve education and cut costs.

Saturday’s vote came after four hours of weighing the pros and cons of several different options for regionalization, as well as reviewing reaction gathered during community forums held by each town.

“Regionalizing pre-K through 12 would allow us to follow students all the way through their education,” Amherst Select Board member Alisa Brewer said. “It lets us see the big picture, and offers us more educational opportunities.”

While members of the planning board support some form of regionalization, some residents in the smaller communities, particularly Shutesbury, say they fear this would result in a loss of their autonomy.

“I understand that part of the issue for the smaller towns is a loss of autonomy and individuality,” Amherst School Committee member Katherine Appy said. “But part of the process here is to ensure that all schools maintain their individuality while coming under the same leadership.

“I appreciate that all the schools have very different cultures, and I hope that message can get out to the other towns that we think those difference would be an asset,” she added.

The first option the planning board considered was to maintain the secondary district as is, and regionalize pre-kindergarten through Grade 6 as a separate district. In that scenario, there would be two school districts and two school committees.

A second option was to regionalize pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 with one school committee, and one school district.

A third option was to regionalize pre-kindergarten through Grade 6 in Amherst, Pelham and Leverett, without Shutesbury. Under this proposal which was recommended, there would be three school districts and three school committees.

A fourth option added to the mix Saturday called for a “hybrid” configuration that would regionalize pre-kindergarten through Grade 12 in three towns under one school committee. This would allow Shutesbury to have a separate school committee for pre-kindergarten through Grade 6, while joining the newly configured regionalized schools only for Grades 7 to 12.

Several members of the planning board thought that this option might be too complicated.

“This scenario would only change the configuration of the regional school committee,” Brewer said. “There would be one pre-K through 12 school committee for the three towns, and we would have to figure out how Shutesbury would fit in.”

After much deliberation, the planning board members representing Shutesbury said that they could not join into any of the proposed models at this point in time. While they were supportive of the plans to regionalize, they do not believe that residents of Shutesbury are ready to support them.

“I do want to see us regionalize, I just think it is the smart thing to do,” Shutesbury Select Board member Elaine Puleo said. “But do I think my town is ready? No, I don’t think so.”

Shutesbury School Committee member Michael DeChiara said he did not want to include his town in the regionalization if it did not have the support of town residents.

“It is my feeling that Shutesbury should not get in the way of the other towns being able to move forward,” DeChiara said.

DeChiara said he would like the Shutesbury members to remain on the Regional School District Planning Board to help shape a regional agreement which must be made by June 30 of this year.

Puleo agreed saying, “If Shutesbury was to come knocking on the door in another five years asking to join the regional district, I would hope that they would be receptive to that.”

DeChiara also said that between now and June 30, residents of Shutesbury will have the opportunity to learn more about the regionalization plan.

“We will still have a town community forum in April. By then, there may be new information that makes sense to the town to go forward with this,” DeChiara said. “There is nothing to say that we couldn’t decide then to join in on the model before June.”

Planning board members said they hope the long-thwarted plan to regionalize the elementary schools will now move forward.

“If regionalizing pre-K through 6 breaks the 50-year logjam that we have been in, then that is a good step forward,” Leverett Select Board member Julie Shively said.

The earliest that regionalization would take effect would be the fall of 2014.

More information is available at the Regional School District Planning Board website at sites.google.com/site/regionalschoolplanning/.

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