Proposal to allow Athol school buses to use Vine Street gate fails

Athol Community Elementary School

Athol Community Elementary School FILE PHOTO

Athol Royalston Regional School District Superintendent Matthew Ehrenworth.

Athol Royalston Regional School District Superintendent Matthew Ehrenworth. FILE PHOTO

By MAX BOWEN

Athol Daily News Editor

Published: 02-20-2024 4:23 PM

Modified: 02-21-2024 10:52 AM


ATHOL — A much-contested pilot aimed at lessening congestion at the Athol Community Elementary School (ACES) will not proceed, following a vote at the Feb. 14 meeting of the Athol Royalston Regional School District School Committee.

The vote followed an hour of discussion on a two-week pilot program proposed by Superintendent Matthew Ehrenworth for school buses to utilize the gate leading onto Vine Street as a means of entering or leaving school grounds for ACES students.

Prior to this, the gate has only been used by emergency vehicles and would continue to serve this purpose while the pilot was underway. Other vehicles would be prohibited from using the gate.

In a letter to parents, Superintendent Matthew Ehrenworth said this could potentially lessen congestion issues on Pleasant Street, cutting down on bus trips by as much as 15 minutes.

“My only intention for opening the gate is to pilot what it would be like to have only buses go in and out of the ACES property through that gate and see if we could reduce the congestion on Pleasant Street, see if it could shorten some of our bus rides for our students and see if we could potentially get some time on learning back for an under-performing school where we need every minute that counts,” said Ehrenworth at the Feb. 14 meeting.

Prior to the committee’s discussion, many residents—some of whom live on Vine Street—spoke against the idea or questioned Ehrenworth’s transparency in this matter. One resident said he was concerned that the committee was being forced to make a decision without all the necessary information.

Selectboard Chair Andrew Sujdak said this was brought to the board’s attention in January, and that they and the town’s public safety departments should be included in the conversation.

“You’re absolutely right, you have every authority to do what you want with the driveway, but once you enter the public roadway, it needs to be considered across the boards,” said Sujdak.

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Ehrenworth responded to these and other comments, saying that discussions began last September, and have included Town Manager Shaun Suhosky, legal counsel and the police. He added that this idea came about when first responders had difficulty getting to a person in distress due to the traffic backup. Ehrenworth said a 38-page document had been sent to the Selectboard detailing the pilot program.

“I am charged with one thing and one thing only—doing what is right for our schools, students and the families of those students,” he said. “I don’t know if this will fix everything.”

Committee members asked a number of questions on the proposal, including whether two weeks would be enough and if it should be extended. Committee member Kiley Hall asked what measurables were in place to see if the program was successful.

“Something does need to change,” said Hall, “Because RCS students spend 10 extra minutes a day on learning, this equals five days a year. It’s important when considering the two elementary schools.”

Ehrenworth said it wasn’t that RCS had five extra days, it was that ACES had five fewer, and that measurables would come about following the conclusion of the pilot.

Several committee members recommended a study of the nearby traffic lights to see what efficiencies could be devised, something which the superintendent supported. School Committee member Tammy Duquette said that it was “disheartening” to hear so many people speak to a lack of transparency during this process.

“We’ve been following the rules that we need to to give you the information,” she said. “We consulted with the legal team on use of the gate, private and public roads.”

A motion was made and seconded to move forward on the program, but this failed by a vote of 5-4 with member Eric Jack abstaining.

In a statement made following the vote, Ehrenworth said “the School Committee voted down opening the Vine Street Gate with the understanding that the town administration and selectboard were going to be conducting a light/traffic study regarding the lights at the corner of Pleasant Street and Main Street.  The district will wait to see the results from this work before it revisits the idea of opening the Vine Street Gate.  If there is a less intrusive alternative to fixing the traffic around ACES and the timing of our buses, the district and School Committee will certainly entertain it.  However, if the actions taken by the town do not alleviate the problems experienced by the school community, then the district may very well pursue opening the gate in the future.”

Max Bowen can be reached at 413-930-4074 or at mbowen@recorder.com.