There was a joint meeting of the Halifax Elementary School Committee, the Kingston Elementary School Committee, the Plympton Elementary School Committee, the Silver Lake Regional School Committee, and Union 31 on Thursday, Nov. 18.
Special Education Presentation
The first presentation of the evening was given by Special Education Director Marie Grable. “Marie is here this evening to give you a general overview with regards to special education and the costs associated with it,” Superintendent Jill Proulx told those assembled. Grable said that the special education team needs to evaluate students to determine if they meet the criteria to receive an IEP. The categories used include autism, developmental delay, intellectual, sensory, neurological, emotional, communication, physical, or health impairment. Grable said that developmental delay applies up to the age of 9. She said she considers it a blessing as it gives them time to evaluate the youngest students accurately. Once a disability is determined, a comprehensive evaluation then takes place. She said the goal is to make sure the student has the ability to access the same opportunities as other students. She used a graphic to differentiate between equality versus equity with the latter equating to access to the same opportunities. Current regional program offerings include the Developmental Learning Center (DLC) and Pathways, the Structured Learning Center (SLC) or Therapeutic Learning Center (TLC), and the Language Based Learning Center (LBLC).
“Our overall student population for students receiving special education services has increased over the last few years,” Grable said. The number currently stands at 673 students – an increase of 30 students over last year. The percentage of students with an IEP for each of the schools is 16.3 percent for Halifax Elementary, 17.3 for Kingston Elementary, 13.7 for Plympton Elementary, and 15.1 percent for Silver Lake Regional. The state average is 16.7 percent.
Kingston Elementary School Committee member Jeanne Coleman asked Grable if there had been an influx in requests for evaluations this past school year. “How are we doing in meeting all of the requirements for getting a student evaluated for their IEP?” she continued. Grable said, “we are on track with every referral that we have received since the beginning of the year to make sure that all of those evaluations are completed by the 30th and 45th day.” She confirmed that they have had an increase since the beginning of the year.
Grable also shared a slide on special education tuitions and transportation budget. She explained that Circuit Breaker “is setup to allow districts to seek some reimbursement for the… very costly tuitions that we are paying for out of district placements.” Grable shared an example of an actual student tuition where the total claim is $109,953. The foundation, or the amount the state assumes the district can absorb, is $46,704, and the net claim is $63,249. The potential return is $41,112 and the actual town impact is $68,841. Entitlement grants are another way that the district can offset tuition costs.
Grable told the Committee that there will be a virtual meeting of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council (SEPAC) on Dec. 6 at 7 p.m. She said it would be a review of basic rights and parents’ responsibilities and rights as it pertains to their child’s IEP.
Steve Pellowe, the Technology Director, followed Grable with a presentation. “I’m here to basically present an overview of the technology budget and give a background and some information on, not only where we were, but where we are and where we’re going and why it costs so much,” Pellowe said. He said that they have made significant progress in the district in the ten years that he has been there and credited that to the School Committee and the taxpayers. Some of the highlights include a new network infrastructure in all buildings and wi-fi coverage in all educational spaces as well and 1-1 Chromebooks in school or take-home for grades 2 through 13. All four districts have also been unified into a single unified network that has provided both cost savings and management time. There are also new phone systems that are tied into one system. In addition, they are building inventory for tracking devices and projecting future replacement needs.
Technology categories within the budget include school management/curriculum software and subscriptions, technology management, supplies and repairs, and technology hardware and assistive technology. Regarding upcoming challenges, Pellowe cited the replacement of Chromebooks that have a limited life expectancy. He also said that by the 2025-2026 school year, district-wide there will be 300 wireless access points aging out. Other replacement needs include projectors in all of the buildings. Also by 2024-2025, the laptops bought for staff during COVID will begin to need to be replaced as will network infrastructure and phones.
Pellowe also shared that the responsibilities for IT are increasing with items that were not previously considered to be IT responsibility now falling under their scope. Such items include security cameras, phones, access control, clocks/intercoms, alarms, and gas meters. “This strains our already thin IT resources,” Pellowe explained.
Regarding support Pellowe said that the last recommendation from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) was 1 technician for every 400 devices. This is significantly more devices per technician than the for-profit industry. He said that currently the district is running at a ratio of 1 technician to every 3,000 devices. Halifax Elementary School Committee Chair Summer Schmaling asked what the solution was to this problem. Pellowe said one option is to bring in more technicians. Another would be to have a management company come in to assist the department. “There is no one solution that I can put my finger on without saying really it comes down to money,” he explained.
Schmaling brought up the bulk purchases, including the teacher laptops, that were bought using the CARES Act funding. She said that looking back she is wondering if they should have staggered it more to extend the life of the items purchased. She suggested possibly buying 1,000 Chromebooks per year over three years as opposed to purchasing 3,000 Chromebooks in a single year. Pellowe called it an excellent question and said they have a tool called Chrome Gopher that looks at age-out times and evaluates what they have. He further said that companies are now being advised to make technology last closer to six years as opposed to four.
Saying, “now it is time for some good news,” Pellow told the committees that this year the FCC offered the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) to help provide devices and connectivity to those that could demonstrate a need. This equates to 65 Chromebooks for Dennett Elementary, 125 for Kingston Elementary, 250 for Kingston Intermediate, and 100 for Halifax Elementary. He said that Silver Lake Regional is still awaiting a decision. They are also waiting for a decision regarding staff devices in all districts. He also said that the district is continuing to take advantage of E-Rate funding for all eligible services and in the current fiscal year, there are commitments for over $46,000 in funding.
Plympton Elementary School Committee and Silver Lake Regional School Committee member Jason Fraser said to Pellowe, “You are extremely conservative with your budget, and I think we’re seeing that with how you disperse your funds for personnel and the numbers that you’re showing comparing what you’re actually dealing with with the amount of devices per person compared to what DESE is recommending; it’s an astronomical feat that you’ve accomplished. I want to make sure that you do not play your numbers as conservative as you come up with some plans for us moving forward.” He continued, “I think it might take a couple of years to really roll out the development of your team to where it should be and I want you to be very specific and very purposeful in putting together that plan… every dollar I feel that I’ve ever voted yes for in any of your budgets, Steve, feels like an investment to me and that investment has paid dividends in our towns and to our children.”
K-6 Curriculum Coordinator Melissa Farrell was next to present the elementary curriculum budget proposals as well as the Title I grant. Farrell shared that the contracted services for teaching budgets stand at $6,870 for Halifax, $2,719 for Plympton, $2,714 for Kingston Elementary, and $8,700 for Kingston Intermediate. Costs for textbooks were $98,812 for Halifax, $36,718 for Plympton, $87,825 for Kingston Elementary, and $95,618 for Kingston Intermediate. “Textbooks have evolved a lot in my time in this role; they are now defined as consumable workbooks/physical materials but also any software that is integrated with the packages of print materials,” Farrell explained. Farrell said there was about a 12 percent increase in textbook costs this year over last year due to science. Instructional software costs were $33,706 for Halifax, $22,164 for Plympton, $27,373 for Kingston Elementary, and $42,164 for Kingston Intermediate.
Farrell, who has been the Title I Director since 2017, showed the fluctuations in the grant allocations from 2017 to 2022. “We have seen it go all the way from $344,637 down to $156,013, back up to $261,126,” she explained. She said they need to be flexible in how they use these funds due to the fluctuations. Title 1 pays for tutors who are licensed teachers. Currently Halifax has 3 tutors, Kingston 6, Plympton 1, and Silver Lake Middle 2. “These support reading and math intervention,” Farrell explained.
Debate over Calendar Change
“There was a proposal made by our Union 31 Chair that we consider a calendar change; that we take a pupil day and turn it into a half day at the elementary schools for conferences,” Proulx said. She said that since the schools share buses, they would need to come to a consensus between the multiple school committees. Proulx said the date would likely be December 8. Clarification was made that parents would be given the option between in-person and virtual conferences. Fraser made a motion on behalf of the Silver Lake Regional School Committee to allow the administration to come up with that day. Silver Lake Regional voted in favor of the motion just as Plympton Elementary School Committee previously had. Halifax also voted in favor of adding the day to the calendar.
Coleman, who serves on the Kingston Elementary School Committee, said that parents have reached out saying it would be a hardship to add the day into the calendar due to difficulty finding childcare. She said for that reason she would be a no. Kingston School Committee member Timothy Lewis also expressed concern over adding the day. Kingston Elementary School Chair Sheila Vaughn said she did not feel like it was right to force all the towns into the same vote as she felt that members of her community had reached out to her separately. “Our town, I really do feel like, does not want this,” she said. In the end and with reluctance, Lewis said, “In the spirit of cooperation… I make a motion to amend the calendar for a half pupil day on December 8 or at the discretion of the administration.” All but one of the Kingston members voted no. This meant that a consensus was not reached, and the day will not be added to the calendar.