| Payton North
HAMPDEN/WILBRAHAM – After an almost year–long discussion which led to litigation, the Town of Hampden released a 17–page settlement agreement and mutual release between the town and Hampden Board of Selectmen and the Hampden Wilbraham Regional School District (HWRSD) and the Hampden Wilbraham Regional School Committee on July 27.
Over the last 10 months the HWRSD Five-Year Reorganization Plan has been the subject of immense discussion and scrutiny as many Hampden residents are displeased that the plan includes the closure of landmark school Thornton W. Burgess Middle School (TWB).
The settlement agreement, provided to The Reminder by Attorney Christine Pikula, shows a thorough timeline of the actions that have occurred leading up to and since the litigation. The settlement agreement states that on or about Oct. 19, 2017 the School Committee voted to approve the Reorganization Plan which provided for immediate actions including the scheduled closing of TWB, the return of TBW to the town of Hampden and the establishment of a grades kindergarten through eighth (K–8) school at Green Meadows Elementary School in Hampden which was set to begin at the start of the 2018–2019 school year.
The agreement continues, explaining that the Reorganization Plan also had future components that would depend on the amendment of the Regional Agreement between Hampden and Wilbraham. These future components consisted of the movement of eighth grade students from both towns to Minnechaug at the start of the 2019–2020 school year, movement of seventh grade students from both towns to Minnechaug at the start of the 2022–2023 school year, reorganization in Wilbraham to reconfigure grade groupings including grade six and eventually the utilization of Green Meadows in Hampden as a kindergarten through sixth grade school effective at the start of the 2022–2023 school year.
“There is a shared interest of the Parties to bring about unification of all Regional School District students in both Wilbraham and Hampden in grades seven and eight with an equitable and excellent education within the Regional District and a shared interest in capitalizing on the facilities and educational opportunities which will be available at Minnechaug Regional High School,” the agreement reads.
On February 28, the Plaintiffs (the Town of Hampden and the Board of Selectmen) filed an action in Superior Court against the Defendants (the HWRSD and HWR School Committee). In this action, the Defendants were hoping to prevent the closing of TWB and the merger of students to Green Meadows.
In addition to the original action filed, the Plaintiffs filed a motion for a preliminary injunction. Following this, the Defendants filed a counterclaim against the Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs subsequently filed an amended complaint.
Both the Plaintiffs and the Defendants believed they had adequate grounds to prevail at trial, and denied that the other has adequate grounds. Furthermore, both parties wanted to avoid the additional expense of a full trial, “and intend by this Agreement to resolve this dispute once and for all,” it reads.
Though long and detailed, the agreement comes down to a series of points agreed upon by both the Plaintiffs and the Defendants:
•The agreement won’t be construed as an admission of any sort by the Parties.
•The School Committee will initiate an amendment to the Regional Agreement which will provide that students from Hampden and Wilbraham in grade eight will go to school at Minnechaug, irrespective of town of residency, beginning in the 2019–2020 school year. Following this, three years later in the start of the 2022–2023 school year, seventh grade students from both towns will be educated at Minnechaug.
•The School Committee will send a letter to each towns Board of Selectmen with a proposal to amend the Regional Agreement and a copy of the proposal will be enclosed in the form of a warrant article. The letter will request the warrant article be included in the town’s fall Special Town Meeting to be held in October of 2018.
•Upon approval of the settlement agreement by both parties, a form will be filed with Hampden Superior Court. Both Parties agree that if the proposed amendment to the Regional Agreement is not authorized by an affirmative vote by the residents of the Town of Hampden at the Special Town Meeting, the Plaintiffs will have 30 days from the date of the meeting to request that the Superior Court vacates the judgment of dismissal and the Defendants will not oppose the request. Similarly, the Defendants will also have 30 days from the Plaintiffs request to counterclaim, and the Plaintiffs will not oppose their request.
•Once the Settlement Agreement is approved by both Parties, they will release a joint statement and will “refrain from public comment intended to disparage members of either the Board or the School Committee,” the settlement reads, as well as “educating the District’s stakeholders about the many positive aspects associated with the Reorganization Plan and the contemplated use of MRHS for grades seven and eight.
•With the acceptance of the Settlement Agreement, the Plaintiffs acknowledge that except specifically authorized, they’re waiving their claims to prevent the closure of TWB and to prevent the use of Green Meadows as a K–8 school.
•Acknowledgement by the Defendants that, “The Reorganization Plan, assuming the amendment to the Regional Agreement…contemplates a K–6 configuration at the Green Meadows School effective with the 2022–2023 school year and the reconfiguration of grade groupings including grade six in Wilbraham effective with the 2022–2023 school year.
•The District has made modifications to Green Meadows by adding furnishing and other materials to the areas of the school that sixth, seventh and eighth grade students will be located. Lockers have been installed, wooden cubbies have been removed, mirrors have been raised in designated bathrooms, books and materials have been added to the library, age–appropriate desks and chairs have been put in classrooms, as well as age–appropriate cafeteria tables. Additionally, the District added an administrator to the school and “intends to explore the possibility of providing additional music, arts and enrichment opportunities for students at the Green Meadows School.”
•The Town of Hampden and the HWRSD are parties to a lease under which the District was leasing and occupying TWB. The District agrees it will endeavor to secure a sublease tenant for TWB that will have an educational use and focus. The objective sub–tenancy is to commence on or about January 1, 2019. Subtenants will be responsible for operating and maintenance costs. “It is expected that the Town may also approach the District about recapturing certain of the leased space at TWB for purposes of relocating the Town Offices to TWB,” the settlement states, to that extent if the town utilizes the space they will be responsible for the associated operating and maintenance expenses.
•The Town of Hampden and the Board of Selectmen will release and discharge the District and the HWR School Committee and its members from and against any and all debts, demands, actions, causes of action, suits, sums of money, contracts, controversies, agreements, promises, claims for attorneys’ fees, executions, liabilities and any and all other claims of any kind relating to the closing of TWB and establishment of a K–8 school.
Along with the Settlement Agreement, Pikula shared a press release unifying the Plaintiffs and Defendants, stating they have “resolved all claims in their pending litigation involving Thornton W. Burgess School.”
“The parties are grateful for the cooperation of all of the persons involved and to have the matter concluded and are now focused on educating the students of the school district and continuing their long history of working together,” the release states.
It continues to ensure that all parties are in agreement that they will work cooperatively to assure that TWB will continue as a facility for educational use.
Following the July 27 announcement, HWRSD School Committee member Mary Ellen Glover announced on July 30 in a letter to Hampden Town Clerk Eva Wiseman that she is resigning from the Committee. Glovers resignation was in response to the portion of the Settlement Agreement that suggests all who enter the agreement refrain from commenting negatively about the agreement and highlight the positive aspects to the agreement instead.
“I neither voted for the settlement agreement nor do I agree there are ‘many positive aspects associated with the Reorganization Plan,’” Glover wrote in her resignation letter. “Nor will I cooperate with the implementation of a plan repeatedly rejected by the voters of the town of Hampden.”
The HWRSD School Committee is now short a member, and will have to appoint a replacement for Glover until the next Town Election.