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Final hearing hosted before new school model vote

Date: 3/26/2010

March 29, 2010

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

WILBRAHAM -- On Tuesday, the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee will be voting on whether or not to close Memorial School in Wilbraham as a cost-cutting measure.

The committee hosted the last of three public hearing on March 24 to gather input from parents and community members on the proposed new school model, which would see the closing of Memorial School and the reorganization of the remaining elementary schools into two-grade schools; the sixth grade would move into Wilbraham Middle School.

"This is a model we believe holds outstanding promise," School Committee Chair Peter Salerno said at the start of the hearing. "We wouldn't present it to you if it did not."

Salerno added the primary concern while considering the new model is the quality of education and the safety of the town's children.

"We need to rally as one and not be divisive [on this issue]," Salerno stated. He told those in attendance, "We want your input and your counsel."

Before the floor was opened for comments and questions, Superintendent M. Martin O'Shea again presented the proposed model, which is estimated to save the district $768,600 a year. He also answered the question if another school -- specifically, Stony Hill could be closed instead. Stony Hill is not being considered because its 1999 renovation is still being reimbursed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, with $2.59 million still left to be paid out. If the school is closed, the town could lose that money and the authority may ask to recoup prior payments.

The question of a different reorganization -- placing grades two through five in each elementary school was also asked. Assistant Superintendent Donna Scanlon explained that that was the first option that was considered.

That model would mean one-third of students from Memorial would go to Stony Hill and the remaining two-thirds would go to Soule Road. This would mean fewer transitions for students and the creation of new school communities, but maintaining class size equity would be difficult and that busing zones would need to be redrawn annually to help balance that.

Scanlon added that it may also become necessary to add two teaching positions to deal with fluctuations in class size.

One resident who spoke called the plan to close the school "a bold move."

"It's one the economic times calls for," he said. "I think we can make another bold move take the district office and put it in [Memorial]; move Wilbraham Public Access to the school; maybe even move the police department there."

Resident Linda Peters mentioned the negative reaction the schools in Ludlow have seen after they switched to a similar school model. O'Shea replied that all research he's seen on the new model is situational in some districts it works extremely well, in others, not so well. He pointed out that Hampden-Wilbraham has gone through six different models in the past 25 years.

Peters added that the School Committee needs to look at the efficiency as well as the effectiveness of the decision to close Memorial.

Andy Lynn, a father of two at Stony Hill, asked about bus times. O'Shea said that on average, bus times and walking times would not increase and that a decrease in bus time could be seen. Under the new configuration, buses would not have to travel as far or make as many stops to fill each bus. Each bus would go into a neighborhood to pick up students from three schools instead of two.

"We're committing to 'family busing,'" O'Shea explained. "It will be a flexible model. We can reconfigure routes if necessary."

Following the hearing, Salerno said he's seen reactions change from when news of the proposed model first broke to the final hearing.

"We appreciate everything you're telling us whether we like it or not," Salerno said. "Speaking for myself, I don't think there are a lot of negative thoughts around this. I believe it's the right thing to do for the town. It's not just a financial decision, it's a sensible one."

The School Committee will vote on the new model at its March 30 meeting, which is taking place at 7 p.m. in the Minnechaug Regional High School Media Center.