WEST SPRINGFIELD — Mittineague School’s final year is more than halfway done.

“Tonight you have done something historic,” said Rachel Knowles, a parent at the smallest of West Springfield’s elementary schools, at the Jan. 9 meeting where the School Committee voted to close it. “You voted against hearing what we had to say. … Your vote tonight told the communities surrounding Mittineague Elementary School that their unity, their culture and their center is worth destroying. Your vote tonight told Coburn, already the biggest elementary school in town, that their school is not big enough. Your vote tonight told West Springfield that we will no longer have community schools. The community is no longer important. But I’m here to stand up and remind you that community is really all we have.”

The School Committee voted 4-2 to close the school and reassign its students to Coburn and Tatham schools in 2024-25. The vote followed a yearlong study by the ad-hoc Student Population Projection Committee, which looked at future needs for elementary schools throughout town.

It also followed a long and emotional public hearing on Dec. 12, 2023, where more than three dozen speakers asked the School Committee to ignore the recommendation to close Mittineague, or at least to delay the process and investigate alternatives.

Referring to that discussion and other correspondence, School Committee member Diana Coyne said at the Jan. 9 meeting, “A lot of comments were made about the vibrant and supportive community [at Mittineague], and I applaud that. I would hope that folks also recognize that all of our other elementary schools also have vibrant and supportive communities.”

She noted that School Department plans have contemplated closing Mittineague since 2005, and that through the years the town has weathered the closing of many other schools.

“Like many, I also have fond memories” of bygone schools, she said, but “we, as a School Committee, are charged with making fact-based decisions for all of West Springfield, all of our students and our community, holistically … while balancing the need to be fiscally responsible.”

Julie Wise, the newest member of the School Committee, was not present at the Jan. 9 meeting and did not participate in the vote, but sent a statement to be read by her colleague Kira Thompson. In her statement, Wise said, “I have complete faith in my colleagues.”

Speaking for herself, Thompson said she, like Coyne, had to make a decision on what is best for the whole town. “We are all West Side,” she said.

School Committee member Colleen Marcus said as the mother of a teacher at Mittineague but also the former principal of Coburn School, she understands why parents value their small school but wants them to know that larger schools can have a sense of community, too.

Marcus said her decision was based on the need to meet districtwide goals such as returning as many students as possible to local schools alongside their neighbors, rather than concentrating English language learners at Coburn, and kindergartners at John Ashley School.

Mayor Willliam Reichelt, who chairs the committee, was the fourth “yes” vote. The two “no” votes were School Committee members Kathy Alevras and Robert Mancini.

Alevras said she would “agree completely with the sentiments of my fellow School Committee members,” but could not vote to close Mittineague at that time. She said the school community had not been given enough time to process and respond to the proposal, and had not received answers to all of its questions.

Mancini made a similar case: “To take this vote less than a month after the hearing, with the holidays in between, is too fast, in my opinion,” he said. “It doesn’t allow us to fully answer every question and make sure we review every option, every option out there, before voting to close the school.”

Speaking after the vote, many Mittineague parents drew a distinction between the four votes in favor and two against.

“How are we as residents supposed to trust you again?” asked Tom Goodrow. “There’s only two members that showed me that government takes into account what the people say. It wasn’t transparent to make the vote tonight, where it wasn’t said anywhere [on the agenda] that it was going to happen tonight. I applaud the two that called that out.”

School Committee members also voted, 5-1, to start working on an application to build a new elementary school in town, to replace Memorial and Tatham schools, and forward its request to the Town Council. Mancini voted against it. Town Councilor Daniel O’Brien asked Reichelt what would happen if the council didn’t approve it.

Reichelt said that would mean no new school, but later clarified that it wouldn’t change the closure of Mittineague, as there is enough room at the remaining four elementary schools to accommodate Mittineague students.

Superintendent Stefania Raschilla pushed back at one of the arguments raised against closing Mittineague in December, that the cost of busing would eliminate the savings realized by not renovating the building, a $20 million price tag. There are no buses serving Mittineague, as all students live close enough to walk. Raschilla said closing Mittineague will require the addition of three buses per day, at an annual cost of $72,000 per bus — far from the $1 million per year number quoted by some opponents.

When the town adds a bus, it runs daily routes for each arrival and dismissal cycle — kindergarten, elementary, middle and high school. Raschilla said the school district was planning on adding buses anyway, to alleviate scheduling difficulties on middle school bus routes.

School administrators added a new wrinkle to the post-closure plan on Jan. 9. Although they had previously said that all Mittineague neighborhood students would be moved to Coburn School, the plan announced just before the closure vote instead calls for the former student body to be split up, as school enrollment boundaries are redrawn this summer.

Some streets on the western edge of the Mittineague zone will be redistricted into Tatham School, Raschilla announced, although current students will have the option to follow their classmates to Coburn.

“Any new enrollments would be placed according to the new boundary lines,” the superintendent said.

Additionally, the Memorial School zone will lose some streets, with those students going to Coburn School instead. That will free up space at Memorial to accommodate English language learners, who had previously been concentrated at Coburn. ELL students were returned to Fausey and Tatham starting this year, following a state mandate that the town accommodate them in their local school like any other neighborhood student.

The effect of the school closure and redistricting will be to equalize elementary class sizes across the four remaining schools. Raschilla said some elementary classrooms have as few as 14 students, and some as many as 24 students, now. The plan is to narrow that range to 18-22.

Consolidating classrooms will mean some teachers lose their jobs, Raschilla said. She said Mittineague employs 22 teachers, but only nine will be needed in other schools to handle the increase in enrollment. The teachers who lose their jobs will not necessarily be current Mittineague faculty, as those with seniority will be able to “bump” younger teachers if they choose to seek a position elsewhere in the district.

Raschilla said she is also looking at moving two classrooms that serve students with disabilities from Coburn to other schools, so that more children are being served in their neighborhood school.

mballway@thereminder.com | + posts