HAMPDEN — Parents in the Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School District community are “disappointed” in the district’s lack of communication after a bus caught fire in Hampden while dropping off middle school students on Jan. 12.

At the Jan. 18 School Committee meeting, Superintendent John Provost said the district has performed an after-action review and examined call logs from the police report. The Hampden Fire Department responded to the fire about four minutes after it was reported. While the bus was evacuated and there were no injuries, he acknowledged that communication between the district and families was a weak point in the response. This is the first bus fire that anyone of Provost’s team had seen, and he said the lack of experience with the unusual occurrence showed in the communication breakdown. Provost apologized to the families and said the district is working with emergency services to improve parent notification.

“This is one of the few times I’ve ever been truly disappointed [in HWRSD],” parent Brett Castellano said. He said parents were sent a text message informing them of a mechanical error with the bus, rather than a fire, and there was no follow-up communication to let parents know where to pick up their children. He said he expected the district to “tell us how serious it was, and tell us we were OK.”

Kyle Jordan, whose 12-year-old daughter was on the bus, said that until the fire he had been pleased the school district. After becoming aware of the fire and going to pick up his daughter, he said. “It was kind of ironic to get a text saying there was a mechanical error when I’m watching as 15-foot flames are shooting out.” He said the trust that his daughter had had in her safety while in the care of the school had been “broken.”

Shannon Sears said her son was on the bus. Had the bus been transporting elementary school students at the time of the fire, she said, “it could have been much worse.” She expressed concern about the conditions of the buses and asked about Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative’s accountability for maintenance.

Brianna McCarthy’s daughter had gotten off the bus just before the fire. “She’s pretty shaken up by it,” McCarthy said.

“I feel the magnitude of the situation was very diminished,” she said.

School Committee member Bill Bontempi said a personal phone call should have been made to every parent.

Provost said the evacuation of the students is evidence that training and bus drills have been successful, but parents disagreed. One person, who said her young child is now afraid to take the bus, said students had difficulty opening the rear door and suggested monitors be assigned to buses to help in such situations. McCarthy also expressed concern that young children would not be able to open the rear door and called for more frequent bus evacuation drills.

School Committee member Sherrill Caruana said drills need to be more realistic than simply being helped out of the already-opened rear door. She said students need to be taught how to open the rear door in a real-world setting.

Fellow School Committee member Sean Kennedy said parents need an app they can access or a phone number that can be called in such situations to allow them to contact their children and know their location. The GPS tracking system for LPVEC buses, which Provost said would have been helpful after the fire, is expected to go live at the end of January. He said the delay is with the mobile app vendor.

School Committee member Michael Tirabassi asked about the cause of the fire and whether it was due to a missed maintenance opportunity. Provost informed him that no cause had been determined at that time. Bontempi asked that reports about the fire and a representative from LPVEC be available for answers at the next School Committee meeting.

Regional agreement revisions

The School Committee discussed changes to the district’s regional agreement with Hampden and Wilbraham. Six main questions were considered, although none of them were settled, as they had to go through the Planning Committee first.

The first question tackled was whether School Committee terms should begin immediately after elections in May or begin with the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. Bontempi said that until 2015, terms began after the election, but it was changed because there would be times when three members would be seated amid the end-of-the-year business, such as the superintendent review. He made the case that the new members would not have the information needed to make decisions.

Tirabassi argued that people who have been successfully elected have been paying attention to matters before the committee and can weigh in knowledgably. Bontempi countered this, saying that the superintendent review includes a rubric, and artifacts and data that are compiled and reviewed long before the final review. He said the review is a legal requirement.

Supporting Bontempi’s statements, School Committee Chair Michal Boudreau said she came in mid-term to fill a vacancy and felt her role in evaluating the superintendent “wasn’t right.” Instead, she said, “July 1 is clean.” Bontempi added that the period between the election and July 1 can help new members acclimate by sitting in on the committee and debating issues in a non-voting capacity.

Caruana was adamant that once someone is sworn in the day after the election, they are legally on the committee, while Tirabassi and School Committee member Richard Rediker, the two newest members of the committee, said they did not feel strongly either way.

Continuing the topic of the School Committee, the members discussed the interpretation of “one person, one vote,” a requirement of the U.S. Constitution. Provost said that at the current five-two split between Wilbraham and Hampden, the representation on the committee is proportional to the census population in each town as reviewed every five years. There is the option to remain with this configuration with each member having an equal vote, but if there was ever a quorum of two members from each town or four or more members solely from Wilbraham, it would run afoul of the requirement.

Alternatively, the committee could weigh each person’s vote as a percentage based on the census population. Calculations of these percentages would be required when determining quorums and counting votes. Otherwise, elections could be districtwide with all candidates on the same ballot in both towns.

Most of the committee supported continuing the current structure.

Next, the committee discussed the location of elementary schools. Historically, one of the most contentious issues between Hampden and the district, the question of whether students in grades K-5 will be educated in their town of residence or within the wider district as determined by the School Committee. There are four elementary schools in Wilbraham and one in Hampden, which roughly reflects the population split between the towns.

Bontempi said the question comes down to how to best serve the students. “We’re responsible for educating all the students. We got into trouble with arbitrary town lines,” he said. Removing town lines from enrollment considerations would allow the district to place students in schools evenly and avoid overcrowding.

He also pointed out that limiting transitions between schools was an educational best practice. Currently, students in Wilbraham move schools every two years. Parent-teacher organizations have lost popularity in HWRSD because children only attend each school for a couple of years, he asserted. He also noted it is difficult for parents to coordinate childcare and transportation with children in multiple schools. Kennedy commented that the ease of picking children up from school should not be a “driving force” in regionalization.

With all students of a single grade in one school, he said there are no “good schools” or “bad schools” for students to attend, Kennedy said. Caruana, a former principal, said having all the teachers for any given grade in a single school allows teachers to flourish. While there are positives to K-5 schools, she said teachers would “lose something” if they did not have the collaborative environment afforded by all teachers of a single grade in the same building.

Tirabassi said the committee must weigh the desire to regionalize all grades against the likelihood of getting the regional agreement changes passed. He said the committee needs to know the “appetite” of both towns.

The desire for vocational education was a key finding of the Strategic Plan. While LPVEC’s Career Technology Education Center is the main source of vocational training for the district, there are some tracks of study it does not offer. The regional agreement stipulates how the cost of outside vocational training programs is paid. The district currently includes vocational training costs in the budget assessments. There is also the option to create a separate annual assessment for each town with tuition and other costs for just the vocational students from that town. The towns could also be invoiced directly for the costs, removing the district from the equation. Bontempi cautioned that the decision would impact the budget.

The high school has four students — all from Wilbraham — in vocational training programs outside of the CTEC program. Rediker said including the costs in the budget “blunts” the impact to one town. Tirabassi said the current arrangement should remain in place. He asked, “There’s so many things we are changing, do we really want people debating this [at Town Meeting]?”

Bontempi suggested the seven member communities that comprise LPVEC invest in adding popular programs it does not now offer. Tirabassi told him LPVEC would have to set up crops, pastures, goat pens, etc., for the agricultural track alone. Bontempi insisted the number of students across all seven towns would make it viable. He also said Worcester Technical High School has entered into a sponsorship agreement with a local car dealership for the automotive track it offers. Students train on the equipment and vehicles the company uses, creating a pipeline for future employment.

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