Undermining HEART report a problematic move

  • Warwick Community School. File photo

Published: 1/8/2019 9:36:58 AM
Modified: 1/8/2019 9:37:03 AM

Push is coming to shove in the plan to close Warwick Community School with not-so-subtle attacks on the data supplied by Pioneer Valley Regional School Committee’s HEART report.

The HEART (Honest Education and Retaining Trust) Committee was formed in March 2017 to respond to a variety of concerns, not least of which was the continued fiscal stability of the Pioneer district. Its membership includes School Committee members from the four district towns plus teachers, staff, parents and community members. Using grant funding, the committee commissioned a report from outside consultants Mark Abrahams and Stephen Hemman to provide the facts needed to make hard decisions, chief among them the anticipated closures of the district’s two smallest elementary schools — including Warwick Community School.

The long-awaited report, voluminous with charts and graphs projecting various fiscal scenarios extending into 2023, was presented at a Dec. 5 public forum. The study predicts that the district’s deficit could climb as high as $3.1 million over the next five years if the district does nothing. School closings, along with more restructuring, will be necessary to avoid a financial shortfall that would dwarf the one discovered earlier this year, according to the new data.

The clock is ticking on an action plan. A decision to close either or both of the two smallest elementary schools must be made by the School Committee by Feb. 1 to accommodate the towns’ financial planning and the terms of the district’s leases on the buildings.

But here’s the rub: Some School Committee members still feel that the relevant information hasn’t been fully laid out for them, even after seeing the results of the HEART Committee study. The pushback is coming from new School Committee Chairwoman Sue O’Reilly-McRae of Warwick, who is also on the HEART Committee, from the Warwick Education Task Force, and from Warwick Community School Principal Elizabeth Musgrave.

O’Reilly-McRae said at a School Committee meeting on Dec. 13 that the data on Warwick Community School provided by the consultants seemed incomplete. She said she requested more information on Warwick’s school from the consultants.

In a letter to the School Committee, the Warwick Education Task Force claimed that savings from closing the town’s school would be less than what the study represented, and pointed out that the costs of maintaining the building would fall on the town if the school were closed. The task force also requested more information.

Musgrave questioned the HEART Committee’s perceived assumption that small class sizes are less than optimal for children, claiming that there are intangible benefits to small, mixed-grade classrooms like Warwick’s.

Tellingly, O’Reilly-McRae said, “We can’t make decisions when we don’t trust the data” – a sentiment that seems to be shared by the Warwick Education Task Force and the school’s principal.

Casting aspersions on the work of the outside consultants by saying “we don’t trust the data” is a charge not to be made lightly. The Finance Committees of all four towns are making decisions based on the findings of the HEART report. A School Committee meeting to review the information one final time is being scheduled for January. The conclusions of the consultants are not inviolable and members are justified in putting it to the test. But O’Reilly-McRae owes it to the PVRS School Committee and the towns to substantiate her misgivings.

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