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School Board Summary: Special Education Proposals Include Staff Additions, Changes

The focus of Monday night’s school board meeting was a three-year special education staffing proposal.

Presentations by Superintendent Carol Kavanaugh, Director of Student Services Karen Zaleski, and Marathon Elementary Principal Lauren Dubault reflect the recommendations of consultants who studied their needs.

Cavanaugh said the goal is to maintain high standards as the district’s demographics change. While the plan recommends a restructuring of current practices, the superintendent said the changes are “in the best interests of students” and designed to “facilitate the transition.”

As enrollment increases, the number of students requiring specially designed instruction will increase, she said.

Looking at the numbers, we found that 586 students were in need of an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This total is up from her 483 students in 2018.

Additionally, it was noted that in Pre-K, the number of students went from 31 to 50, an increase of 19, or 61%. Nineteen students are the equivalent of three classrooms for her, as each class has only seven of her students with special needs.

With existing staff, the caseload of more than 100 students will be “more challenging,” Zaleski said.

The “non-student” staff currently includes the Director of Support Services and four team chairs. There are team chairs, one each for middle school, high school, marathon, and one each for Hopkins and Elmwood.

In the proposal, the team chair positions will be reorganized into a SPED coordinator for grades K-2 and another SPED coordinator for grades 3-5.

The recommendation also calls for the additional positions of Pre-K Director and SPED Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for Kindergarten through fifth grade. The expected cost is $210,000.

During the first year, 2022-2023, new positions will be covered by grants. However, in 2023-24 the costs must come from the school budget.

Also recommended for the second year of the plan is the hiring of a part-time Pre-K Behavioral Support Representative, a part-time Liaison with Marathon, and three SPED Associate Professionals.

In addition to the Needs Assessment for the SPED Program for Grades 6-12, the expected budgetary impact will be $200,000.

During 2024-2025, the focus will shift to acquiring transition specialists for the program for 18-22 year olds based on enrollment at a cost of $75,000. Grant-funded programs teach life skills as individuals come of age and graduate from the school system.

Zaleski says the program builds community ties and leads to meaningful employment for young people.

The presenter acknowledged that as the number of registrants grows, more staffing than is included in the proposal may be required.

School board member Leah Butler-Rafferty admitted that adding $410,000 to the budget was difficult to sell to community members. She asked a few questions about what would happen to SPED students in their senior years, wondering if they would receive the same level of service.

Vice-Chair Amanda Fargiano asked whether the growth of the SPED program was adequately supported, noting that many grants support it and may not have the full picture.

Marathon project bidding fixed

In other businesses, the Commission revised the bids accepted at the last meeting to add four classrooms to the Marathon School.

The general contractor’s bid from Mill City was offered at $3,720,149 when the pending funding was supposed to be $3,992,152. The latter figure reflects the rebid value of sub-bids in the electrical sector, which is incorporated into the general contractor’s total.

A special town meeting on August 18 will vote on whether to approve an additional $850,000 in funding for the project. The money will come from the department’s Legacy Farm Fund and will not affect taxpayers, the commission said.

Elmwood Exchange Project Designer Selected

The Superintendent updated the Board on the progress of the Elmwood Exchange Project. She will lead potential projects subject to final approval by the Massachusetts Department of School Construction’s designer selection committee, based on the company’s experience in designing and constructing schools statewide. He said he chose Perkins Eastman to do this.

Representing the school district on the panel were Kavanaugh and Elementary School Building Commission representatives Michael Shepherd and Tiffany Ostrander.