WE ARE HOMETOWN NEWS.

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Town councilors are divided about the School Committee’s decision to close Mittineague School and reassign its students to Coburn and Tatham schools. Some opposed it and some showed careful interest in the supporting side.

“I see both sides and I want to make an informed decision,” said Councilor William Forfa, at a special meeting to discuss the topic Jan. 29.

Forfa read a letter from a resident of District 2, where Mittineague School is located, which said that the proposal ensures long-term equity in class sizes and shared resources between West Springfield schools. As an example of current inequity, it said both Tatham and Mittineague schools have one counselor and one nurse, but Tatham has twice the students. The letter ultimately supported the proposal made by the Student Population Projection Committee to close Mittineague this year — which the School Committee voted on Jan. 9 to do — and to build a new elementary school to replace John Ashley, Memorial and Tatham schools.

Councilor Jaime Smith, a member of the Student Population Projection Committee whose report led to the School Committee decision, said she’d received emails with all sorts of emotions on the subject and that she reads them all. She acknowledged criticism about the transparency of the process, particularly the lack of publicly available minutes, which she said she had to ask for herself. She said her goal was to take everything into consideration, and that she ultimately wants what’s right.

“I’m with you, I’m for the best for this town, our future,” she said. “Just because I made a decision as part of that committee doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind.”

On the opposing side, District 2 Councilor Michael LaFlamme said the process to close the school was not transparent. He said the five Student Population Projection Committee meetings conducted since May 2023 were all scheduled for 4:30 p.m., a time when people were likely working, and none were recorded. As well, meeting minutes were not approved until Nov. 28, and were not online until Dec. 5, one day after the committee voted to recommend closing the school. The state’s Open Meeting Law requires minutes to be approved within 30 days or at the next meeting, he said. Even once they were released, LaFlamme added, the minutes were not very detailed, and didn’t come with any supplemental documents.

“It seems like that process was made to leave people in the dark,” he said.

Councilor Daniel O’Brien said elementary schools are the center of town neighborhoods and that the four School Committee members who voted to close Mittineague voted to change the character and history of the town. He called the plan a “divide and conquer” plot to consolidate all elementary schools in one location. He also said the town should spend nothing on new buildings until the schools are in order.

“I don’t see a room full of residents demanding a new police station, I see them asking to keep the schools open,” he said.

As the Town Council meeting was opened for public comment, School Committee member Diana Coyne said, as someone who wasn’t there for all the Student Population Projection Committee meetings, she resonated with comments about the meeting minutes. She reminded the audience that School Committee meetings are on the second Tuesday of each month and are televised.

“I wanted to come so I could be sure I was hearing everyone and I appreciate all of the comments and the concerns,” she said. “I will internalize all of that, as well, and I look forward to working with everyone.”

Resident Erin Placey also asked councilors to sign a petition to keep Mittineague School open. After the meeting, she stood at the entrance of Town Hall collecting signatures. She said all nine councilors signed her petition.

Petition organizers need to collect 2,414 signatures by Feb. 8. If they reach this goal, the School Committee will be asked to reconsider its decision. If the School Committee does not reverse its vote, the matter would go to a townwide referendum.

The Town Council cannot reverse a decision made by the School Committee. However, it does have the power to approve or disapprove a statement of interest to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for funding of a new school. In an email, Mayor William Reichelt said Superintendent Stefania Raschilla was drafting such a statement to start the multi-year process of building a new elementary school. It would have to be approved by the School Committee and the Town Council.

Reichelt did not attend the Jan. 29 meeting, and his absence was noted by some speakers. Resident John Sweeney said he feels Reichelt has not been transparent this term. LaFlamme also said he was disappointed that he would not be able to hear the mayor speak about his vision for the town’s schools.

In the email, Reichelt said his vision is shared with the School Committee, which he chairs. He disputed the notion that the Mittineague closure process hasn’t been transparent, saying that it has been discussed in West Springfield Public Schools Master Plan updates from 2005 to 2023. He said that the town uses committees and public meetings to be transparent and did the same with the Mittineague decision.

“The meetings of all of the involved committees were open to the public and their agendas were posted in advance pursuant to the Open Meeting Law’s requirements,” he said. “Meetings of the School Committee are televised and reported on by local news outlets. As such, I believe the concerns about transparency are misplaced.”

Reichelt also said the school district used grants this year to start a preschool program, which now has a long waitlist. Turning Mittineague into an early education center, he said, would allow school employees to keep their jobs and increase enrollment, therefore increasing state funding.

“The decision to close Mittineague was the first step in the creation of a preschool program,” he said. “There is no other space across the district to offer a universal preschool program to the community. Without the space offered by Mittineague, the preschool program would remain a grant-funded lottery program until that grant funding ended and the program would end with it.”

Using the Mittineague building for pre-K was a suggestion made by Raschilla but not a proposal considered by the Student Population Projection Committee. It was not part of the School Committee’s vote on Jan. 9, which only concerned the fate of elementary classes in the 152-year-old building.

Reichelt suggested the School Committee and Town Council meet together on the subject. He did not say if or when that meeting is taking place. He said he sent town councilors information related to the School Committee’s decision two weeks ago and hasn’t gotten any questions from them about it.

Residents with questions can reach out to Reichelt “however they feel comfortable doing so,” he said, including by telephone at 413-263-3041 and email at mayor@tows.org. He can be found on Facebook, X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, and TikTok, where he posts videos about West Springfield topics.

tlederer@thereminder.com | + posts