MONSON — At the Jan. 17 School Committee meeting, Superintendent Cheryl Clarke provided a comprehensive update on the district’s efforts to tackle chronic absenteeism, enhance student support and improve technology infrastructure.

Clarke highlighted a statewide and nationwide issue of decreased student attendance post-pandemic, citing that 25% of students have been absent for more than 18 days.

The district plans to implement tiered interventions, including developing a “menu” of support options across schools. Clarke, co-chairing the district attendance team, collaborates with counselors and other professionals to expand the initiatives.

A notable part of these efforts is the Recovery Academy, a program targeting students on the verge of being designated as chronically absent. The initiative, funded through a grant secured by Clarke, will offer targeted support during breaks and selected weekends.

In her update, Clarke also mentioned the successful implementation of high-dosage math tutoring for fourth and eighth graders.

She referred to a recent progress monitoring report from the Center for School and District Partnership, which showed positive preliminary findings from Granite Valley School. The school received a significant boost with a $100,000 grant to enhance student behavioral and mental health support.

Clarke touched upon the district’s technology plan. A committee meeting is scheduled to reassess the plan, initially established in 2017. The committee will evaluate the plan’s success and develop a new strategy for the upcoming years, focusing on Artificial Intelligence and professional development.

Lastly, Clarke discussed her initiative to enhance safety at Granite Valley School. She plans to collaborate with local authorities to explore grant opportunities for improving evacuation routes and safety trails around the school.

Fiscal year 2025 budget discussed

Clarke briefed the School Committee on the preliminary fiscal year 2025 budget, highlighting its alignment with the district’s strategic goals and challenges. Leah Zippen, the district’s director of business and operations, joined Clarke.

The superintendent stressed that the FY25 budget was still in the early stages, with a formal presentation planned for the next month. Key goals include maintaining class sizes under 20 and preserving elective consistency for middle school students.

The administrative team has prioritized collaboration and flexibility in budget planning, with no additional staffing requests anticipated. However, Clarke mentioned uncertainties in staff cost increases due to ongoing negotiations.

The budget faces revenue adjustments, including a $17,000 reduction in preschool revenue, attributed to an increase in students with Individualized Education Programs, known as IEPs.

The cessation of federal grants, previously contributing $261,000, poses additional challenges. Staff reductions are planned due to the expiration of ESSER funding, affecting positions at Granite Valley and Monson High School.

The ESSER fund, part of the federal CARES Act from 2020, helped K-12 schools deal with the coronavirus pandemic. Schools used the funds for online classes, health measures, and learning loss.
The ESSER grants focused on different needs as COVID-19 dragged on.

A primary concern is the significant increase in utility costs. The electricity budget was set to rise from $41,545 in FY24 to a proposed $390,000 for FY25, alongside a nearly $37,000 increase in natural gas expenses.

The changes stem from misunderstandings around solar credit usage and contractual obligations, considerably impacting the district’s operating budget.

Clarke emphasized the importance of transparency and clear communication regarding the cost increases and potential impact on the district’s budget. Concerns revolved around the district being expected to absorb these additional utility costs, noting the financial implications.

Date set for high school graduation

The district has announced its graduation ceremony date and time, considering the schedules of nearby schools to accommodate families with graduates in multiple institutions.

The graduation is set for May 31 at 6 p.m. The timing avoids conflict with Pathfinder’s graduation, also scheduled for May 31 but at 4 p.m. A two-hour gap gives families enough time to attend both ceremonies.

In case of inclement weather, Monson’s graduation will be rescheduled to 10 a.m. on the following Saturday. Again, the time avoids a clash with Pathfinder, with its rain date set for noon on the same day.

Dennis Hohenberger
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