Six-town board votes to draft agreement for potential Pioneer, Gill-Montague school merger

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield.

Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/JULIAN MENDOZA

Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School.

Turners Falls High School and Great Falls Middle School. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By MAX BOWEN

Athol Daily News Editor

Published: 01-05-2024 5:08 PM

Following a nearly unanimous vote, the Six Town Regionalization Planning Board will begin work on a regional agreement that would combine the Gill-Montague and Pioneer Valley regional school districts.

The 13-3 vote at the Jan. 3 meeting was only on whether to draft the agreement, and not the immediate merger of the districts. Each member community will need to vote at its Town Meeting on whether to approve the agreement and join the new district. Should each town vote to regionalize, a transition plan would be developed and implemented over the course of two years. Board Chair Alan Genovese said this would likely not come before the towns until 2025.

“Ultimately, it’s up to the voters to decide,” he said.

Should the six towns vote to regionalize, middle school students would attend classes at Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield and high schoolers would go to Turners Falls High School. Elementary students would continue to go their community schools.

Board members Karen O’Neil, Reina Dastous and Jennifer Coffin voted against drafting an agreement. Lynn Reynolds was absent.

Genovese said he listened to the issues raised by those who voted against drafting the agreement. One concern was that after enduring all the changes from the COVID-19 pandemic, another major shift may be too much for the students. Others suggested that the new transportation routes would be too long, though Genovese said the research done showed this would not be the case. On the other hand, he said combining the districts would bring new experience, teaching methods and perspectives.

“You really do need different teachers with different styles and different perspectives,” he said.

Board member Greg Snedecker said the two districts have seen a drop in enrollment over the last 30 years to roughly half of what they once had, which has particularly impacted the middle and high schools. He added this is partially due to recent generations having smaller families.

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“To think you can grow your way out of this is limited,” Snedecker said.

As a teacher who worked in a school that saw similar obstacles, Snedecker said the downside of smaller classes is a lack of conversation and opinion. He said this first-hand experience led him to be among those to vote in favor of drafting the agreement,

“As you get smaller and smaller and have less and less to offer,” Snedecker said, “your school gets less and less attractive.”

Work on this proposed merger began in 2019, though the pandemic required a new approach to collecting information and feedback on the plan. Genovese said extensive research was conducted, speaking with parents, students and educators, with the effort ultimately showing the larger student body that would result from combining the districts would provide more learning opportunities.

“Both school districts have seen programs pared back due to budgets and lack of students,” Genovese explained. “This would reinstate many of those that were lost and add new ones.”