AGAWAM — After hearing three opponents speak at a Dec. 12 public hearing, Agawam School Committee members reaffirmed their June decision to rename what is now Sapelli School.

A group of residents who opposed dropping the former name, Robinson Park School, had collected enough signatures on a petition to force the School Committee to host a public hearing.

Although the petition was signed by at least 50 residents, few attended the hearing. Only three residents spoke in opposition to the name change. Their opposition stemmed from what they felt was not enough advance notice of the proposed change to the public, the school staff and parents, as well as the former name’s long history in the community since the school opened in 1959.

Joyce Dolat, who gathered signatures for the petition, said it was a “shame” that not enough people knew about the name change.
“So many people in this community had no idea that it was even happening. I had to inform them that it’s already happened,” she said.

Dolat said she also believes that the policy to name a school was not followed.

“I read that policy. I spoke to many parents of the students of the school and none of them were informed.”

A parent of a student at the school, Kerry Cordis, said it would have been “wonderful” to name Agawam Junior High School after Sapelli, since he was the superintendent, with an office in that building, for many years.

“We all think the mayor should be honored. We have no issue with that. But Robinson has so much history,” Cordis said.

David Virella said three generations of his family attended RPS. He asked why the School Committee didn’t “make the conscious decision, the smart decision” to give Sapelli’s name to a school that didn’t already honor a person in its name.

“I think it was a major mistake by this body here,” he said. “I think that you guys rushed it through because if you brought it up at the June 27 meeting, how much time did anybody have to react to that? I didn’t know about it until the name had already been voted on and it was going to be changed. The onus of that falls squarely on your shoulders.”

Speaking in favor of the change were City Councilor Gerald Smith, who proposed the idea of renaming RPS after Sapelli at the May 23 School Committee meeting, and Laurie Wright.

Smith said only a “small minority” oppose the name change.
“I feel bad because I can’t imagine anyone in this town who is more well deserving,” he said of Sapelli. Wright said simply, “Keep it the way it is now.”

Sapelli, who is currently serving as Agawam mayor but will step down next month after opting not to run for reelection, was an Agawam educator for 40 years before being elected mayor six years ago. His career included a stint as principal of Robinson Park School, as well as a term as superintendent of schools.

At the beginning of the discussion on a motion to vote on reverting back to the school’s original name, School Committee member Kerri O’Connor made several allegations about the committee. O’Connor, who attended the meeting virtually, said the committee did not follow its own policy for naming schools, violated the state’s open meeting law and allowed a person who is not on the committee to influence the vote at the hearing.

O’Connor decided not run for reelection, so she will be leaving the committee when her term expires in January. As she is moving to Florida, she sent a letter to the committee in late November stating she would not attend the remaining committee meeting in 2023.

She said on Dec. 12 that she was deliberately excluded from an email sent to committee members about the hearing process just days earlier. But committee member A.J. Christoper said that O’Connor was left off the list because her letter appeared to be a resignation from the committee.

O’Connor made a motion to table the vote until there could an investigation by the state attorney general’s office. She also said she will consult with the town’s lawyers as to whether votes were influenced via email prior to the public hearing. That motion failed, 5 to 1, with O’Connor the only member who voted in favor of tabling the motion.

After the motion failed and the committee resumed its discussion on the main motion, committee member Wendy Rua said she wanted to acknowledge the people who spoke out against the name change.

“In the future, we need to do better to ensure that when we have things on the table, that they are presented properly to the individuals that they will affect,” Rua said. “I think we could have done better and I own that.”

Shelley Borgatti-Reed, the committee’s vice chair who presided at the public hearing, said she admired “people’s passion to fight for what they believe in,” but felt the committee had been transparent on its name change votes in June.

“Our agendas are posted in advance,” she said. “Our meetings are on [cable television] Channel 15. They’re live. They’re also replayed over on Facebook. They’re filmed and are open to the public and our meeting minutes are posted to our website. I believe we were very transparent,” she said.

Borgatti-Reed also read a letter from town attorney Russell Dupree. His letter was a response to her request for a legal opinion to determine if the committee had violated its own policy when it renamed the school. Dupree reviewed the policy as well as posts and minutes of the committee’s May 23, June 13 and June 27 meetings.

He also reviewed the resolution explaining the reasons why the committee wanted to make the name change. After looking at all the documents, Dupree said he found that the committee had not violated its policy.

The committee’s vote to change the name back to Robinson Park failed by a 5 to 1 margin. O’Connor was the lone “yes” vote. The school will retain its current name.

Though Sapelli serves ex-officio as chair of the School Committee, he did not participate in the discussion or vote on the school name.

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