Consultant shares Pioneer facilities planning update ahead of Thursday public forum

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

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

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 10-31-2023 12:30 PM

NORTHFIELD — Ahead of this week’s second public forum on facilities planning, the consulting company leading the process briefed the Pioneer Valley Regional School District School Committee on its initial survey data.

At the School Committee’s Oct. 26 meeting, Paul Mills, education strategy leader with consulting company CannonDesign, shared the data the company has received from the community regarding priorities in the school district and feelings toward renovating old buildings versus constructing a new one.

The survey received 246 responses, which Mills noted is among the highest response rate the company has seen in its national work, when broken down into per-pupil response.

“I’m really happy with the percentage of people that stepped up and took the surveys; that really gives us a lot of data to analyze and work with,” commented School Committee member Melissa Gerry. “Instead of anecdotal stuff, it was concrete.”

In September, school officials partnered with CannonDesign to undergo an exploration of how the district could invest in its facilities and create a draft operational and capital plan that will come before the School Committee in December.

Reviewing the data, Mills said approximately 75% of respondents felt “comfortable” in the district’s current buildings. A vast majority of folks also identified school culture, educational program quality and extracurricular activities as the main factors they consider when placing their student in a school.

In a similar vein, a majority of respondents placed general classroom, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and career-oriented educational facilities as some of the places that are in “most need of attention.”

When it comes to the community’s feelings toward balancing school capacity, the highest-scoring category — on a scale from one to five — was “changing which grades go to which schools” with an average of 3.4.

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“Newer facilities is not a compelling factor for looking at remaining in something that’s closer to home or convenient,” Mills said. “Your community is motivated by the quality of programs more than the quality of facilities.”

CannonDesign explored school capacity by laying out a financial assessment of the schools’ facilities and then presenting four different scenarios the district could potentially pursue. With each of the school buildings getting older, Mills noted many of their systems are approaching the end of their lifespans, which means the price tag on the district’s 10-year needs is expected to be high.

Scenarios include: continuing the same model of a regional middle and high school and Northfield and Bernardston elementary schools; separating the elementary schools by grade; renovating Pioneer and building a single elementary school; or moving the sixth grade classes to Pioneer and renovating all three existing school buildings.

Each scenario, Mills noted, has different capital — or one-time costs — as well as annual operational costs, which vary depending on whether projects would involve mainly renovations or the construction of new facilities.

The community is invited to Pioneer on Thursday, Nov. 2, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. to talk about these draft options, while also sharing other feedback around the process. Pizza and salad will be served at 5 p.m. and child care will be available starting at 5:30 p.m.

Following Thursday’s community forum, the District Planning Committee will work through that feedback and then a final recommendation will be made to the School Committee on Dec. 14.

CannonDesign’s presentation, as well as a signup for child care at Thursday’s community forum, can be found in the district’s newsletter at bit.ly/3tW1jry. A second community survey will be launched following the forum.

School Committee Chair Reina Dastous said the whole facilities planning process provides a good look into the future of the district and is the type of thing school officials need to be on top of, so there’s no surprises in the future.

“Some of the numbers, when you’re looking at the five- and 10-year projections, are a little daunting, to say the least,” Dastous said. “But I am really glad we’re engaging in this process because we can anticipate what’s coming and we’re not going to find ourselves in hot water in five years.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.