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Reallocation plan for staff approved
Intervention staff to be balanced across all district buildings; MHS Earth Club endorses renewable energy systems for new HS
School Board 2

MONROE — The School District of Monroe Board of Education held its second meeting of 2023 on Jan. 23. While public comment focused on continued frustration over the recently passed referendum to build a new high school, the board spent little time discussing the matter before moving into closed session. However, the board did approve staffing reallocations for the 2023-24 school year that will touch every building in the district.

By a 6-1 vote, the board approved a plan headed by Director of Pupil Services, Joe Monroe, and Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Todd Paradis. The plan will essentially shift some intervention specialists to different buildings, as well as shrink total staffing through attrition, rather than layoffs.

“I’ve been here — this is my 25th year here — and I can’t think of a time when the district has engaged in this kind of work and planning,” Joe Monroe said. “This wasn’t something that we just sat down for a day or two and came up with some ideas. There’s a lot of different data sources that we’re using to consider this plan.”

Among those data sources looked at included:

●  Class sizes

●  Demographics

●  Enrollment

●  Enrollment trends

●  Wisconsin DPI school report card performance

●  a Response Tier Intervention (RTI) needs assessment

●  English Language Learner (ELL) audit conducted by CESA 2 

They also utilized Forecast 5 Analytics, a system that collects sortable data from across the state, which allowed for comparing against other school districts of similar size and demographics from around the state.

“We used all of that to try to get a sense of what we need to do where we have more of what we need, and where we don’t have enough of what we need,” Joe Monroe said. “Most — if not all — of the transfers will be voluntary. Licensing is very important, and we need to make sure that we put people with the appropriate license in the appropriate job — and that’s also been factored into this plan.”

With positions being eliminated over the next three school years, Joe Monroe said the cost savings to the district would be almost a half million dollars.

“We think that’s an important thing to do, and we also think this plan is a great opportunity to better serve our kids,” Joe Monroe said. “We’re not saying that there aren’t additional opportunities out there in the future, but given the work that we’ve done at this point, I think this is what we’re comfortable recommending, and we feel good about the idea to make some of these reductions in an effort to save the district and the community some tax dollars.” 

He cited that the student population is down in the district nearly 21% over the past 15 years, while staffing is down just 12%. Those numbers include the closing of the former charter virtual school in 2015.

“We essentially have about a 9% gap there,” Joe Monroe said. “What this means is that we have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to reduce our cost and save tax dollars going forward. I think the nice thing about this plan is that we are able to do this in a way that not only saves money, but I think we can also do some things to make our systems even more efficient — and ultimately make our students more successful.”

The process did not happen hastily, and the two worked with principals at buildings across the district, who in turn communicated possible outcomes to the staffs at their schools.

“When we’re talking about changes, that’s not always easy for people to hear,” Joe Monroe said. “We’ve spent some time going over this plan with our administration, our teacher leaders; we’ve shared this proposal with all of our buildings, talked with individual teachers that are most effected. While a lot of people didn’t necessarily like the change that is associated with what might happen, they recognize the rationale and the value in some of these changes. … I think it’s been very collaborative; I think it’s been very transparent; and I’m proud of the work that our team has done in that regard.”

Monroe recognized that the district’s recent Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) report card scores in state marks are not up to par. By doing some thought-out shuffling, students and schools would be better utilized to bring those low DPI report card scores up. 

The DPI acknowledged last year that the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on instruction throughout the state. Between virtual/at-home learning, pauses in instruction, and a lack of uniform learning tools and instruction across the state, report card numbers were lower. The 2019-20 and the 2020-21 school years had its federal assessments waived. After two years of instruction interruption, the 2021-22 school year marked a return to normalcy, and Monroe’s scores were lower than many of its counterparts, both those from other local schools or from similar-sized schools.

“First, we’ve got some things we’ve got to fix in this district. Our student outcomes are not what they need to be. We recognize that. At the end of the day, we know there are some things that need to get fixed,” Joe Monroe said. “The second [thing] is, we know we need to realize some savings in the district. We know that we have a declining enrollment, and we need to make sure that as our enrollment goes down we make any necessary reductions to save dollars, not only for the district, but for the taxpayers as well.” 

Addressing the gaps in systems of support

“We did a needs assessment internally to look at ‘Do all of our buildings have the necessary systems and resources to be able to provide those supports,’” Paradis said. “The second assessment was an ELL audit, as we have a growing ELL (English Language Learner) population in the district. We had CESA 2 come in and look at our ELL program and what needs we have to address there. … We have a growing population of Spanish-speaking students at all of our levels.”

Paradis said that two of the sub-scores categories that are extremely important to the overall scores is achieving growth for all students, and that involves targeting the bottom 25% of students.

“We really need to make sure those kids have the right supports to grow and be successful,” Paradis said. “We have to make sure that we have equitable services across all of our buildings. No matter what building our students are in, they need the same support.”

That means having an ELL and math specialist in each building in order to provide targeted support at all levels. Paradis said the district also has to be able to be more fluid and adaptable, as not all the demographics of students are the same in all buildings.

Paradis explained that the district has three “tiered levels” of support, citing a visual of an inverted pyramid. Tier 1 support is core instruction that all students receive, with fewer needing support at Tier 2, and the smallest segment placed in Tier 3, needing intensive support.

“Some kids need more time and attention to learn those skills, so they get another layer of support of when they need it — that would be our Tier 2,” Paradis said. “Then we also have that third level of support, so that a student that needs all three levels would get that third level of intensive support. It may be foundational skills that they don’t have in order to be successful at what we’re trying to provide at Tier 1.”

Joe Monroe said it is ultimately the school district’s responsibility when a student isn’t meeting the mark. 

“If there are kids that are struggling, we’ve got to have some kind of support, some kind of intervention that we can provide to make sure they are getting what they need. This plan is trying to provide all the staffing and systems and support that kids need in order to make sure they have an opportunity to be successful,” Joe Monroe said.

Joe Monroe said part of the plan is to spread some of the ELL students from Parkside to Northside, as Park has been the main building for ELL elementary students over the past several years.

“People may not know this, but the way our district has served elementary ELL students over the years is that we focused the program at Parkside Elementary. And that worked pretty well when our numbers were smaller — it provided an efficient program so we can consolidate our resources and our teachers,” Joe Monroe said. “But as that population, or that enrollment for our ELLs has gone up, that’s no longer viable as a plan. We’ve gotten to the point where about 20% of Parkside’s population is ELLs, and what we’re starting to see … is a huge shift in the demographics between Parkside and our other schools.” 

“We’re starting to figure out how to distribute students into those other elementary buildings, starting with Northside next fall,” Paradis said.

That would entail upcoming kindergarten students potentially in the Northside “walk-zone” that would switch, unless there is an older sibling still at Parkside. 

“It’s just the kindergarten cohort starting at Northside,” said Jenna Trame, the Parkside principal. “If for some reason they have a sibling and they were interested in that opportunity, they could potentially do that, but we’re not looking to take third, fourth or fifth graders that are already established at Parkside and move them to Northside — this is just the incoming kindergartner cohort for new families that would live appropriately in that area.”

Trame said that would be about 18-20 kids, which are already plotted on a map throughout the community that administrators and principals have set up to see what the neighborhood school would be. 

Abraham Lincoln Elementary was already scheduled to continue its move to an all one-section building, having shrunk its kindergarten and first grades down to just one classroom, with Parkside and Northside seeing their enrollments grow. The original plan for Lincoln was to drop second grade to just one classroom next year, but the new switch adds third grade as well, with fourth and fifth grades following in each of the next two school years. Abraham Lincoln would also lose one of its three general interventionist staff members next year to another building.

The second part of shuffling staff is that at the middle and high schools, there is an unbalanced ratio of students to teachers, at nearly 40:1. 

“The recommended number is much less than that,” Paradis said, citing the CESA 2 audit before adding that the numbers are continuing to increase.

Board member Teresa Keehn said she was struggling to understand how it would all work, and felt that it was a decision of great impact that didn’t have enough data yet. She didn’t feel comfortable voting yes just yet, and was the lone dissent. The proposal and discussion took about 70 minutes in all. Nikki Austin and Tim Wolf were absent from the meeting. Eric Eckdhal, Dylan McGuire, Teri Ellefson, Rich Deprez, Phil Vosberg and Cheryl McGuire all voted in favor by voice vote.

“I believe we very well may have to make some of these cuts, and this may be the very best we can do, but I also feel we have the responsibility to do this based on data and goals, and to measure the effectiveness of our desired intent,” Keehn said. “I just feel there has to be a mechanism to understand the impact of these decisions will have to help guide us to know that we are making the right decision — if we should stay the course or change in the future.” 

Brief update on high school referendum

The board met in a closed session at the end of the meeting to discuss updates on the $88 million referendum that intends to build a new high school on a new site. Before moving to closed session, District Administrator Rodney Figueroa gave a brief update on the record, which included the district’s search for land for the new high school.

“We are working with CG Schmidt and the estimator to get more accurate estimates so that when we have the pieces and we have the comparison we will provide that information in an accurate way,” said Rodney Figueroa, District Administrator. “After the board has made a selection, a meeting is going to be held with information. That information will be posted online, and the meeting will be posted as a Class 2 posting, so people will be able to see that. Plus, it will run twice in the paper, on the website, on the social media channels. In the meantime, before the meeting of electors, we will host a meeting so that we can share information about the property.”

Figueroa said that the informational meeting would be similar to the community sessions that took place in the fall of 2022 prior to the November election.

Figueroa also said there have been six candidates that have expressed interest in helping as owner-reps for the project.

“We would have somebody that their sole purpose would be to make sure that the project is being done, and being done properly,” he said.

MHS students make the case for renewable energy at new school

The meeting led off with a presentation by MHS Earth Club, a high school extracurricular club of students that are passionate about sustainability. The club is advised by Mark Dickson, a science teacher at MHS.

The students spent about five minutes proposing that the new high school be fitted with a solar array, so-as to bring down not only total carbon emissions, but sustain a level of cost savings and energy independence. 

Ellefson attended a panel on schools and solar energy at the recent Wisconsin Association of School Boards convention, and said renewable energy was a big topic.

“Lots of schools are going to it. It’s a great way to give back to the schools and the community,” Ellefson said before congratulating the Earth Club students on their presentation.

Several southern Wisconsin schools have turned to using various sources of renewable energy. Fort Atkinson has a wide array of uses, including the use of a geothermal HVAC system and solar panels. About 75% of the cost of the solar panels was covered by renewable energy grants. The district also uses buses fueled by natural compressed gas, a savings of about $12,000 a year. In all since the changes began about 15 years ago, from installing more efficient appliances, water heaters, switching to silverware from plastic cutlery and the renewable energy changes, the Fort Atkinson school district has saved almost $176,000 per year.

The new Verona High School, which opened in 2020, was built using nearly $5 million in energy efficient equipment, and is projected to have the costs paid back in less than 10 years. The school is more than twice the size of the projected new Monroe High School and cost $149 million, with voters approving a $183 million referendum in 2017 for it. It also has a new warm-water aquatics center, eight tennis courts, two softball diamonds, a turf football stadium, two baseball fields, a cross country course, and another field to be used for soccer and lacrosse.

At a smaller scale, the MHS Earth Club cited Darlington as an example. The Darlington school district saw a 156-kilowatt system installed on its elementary school roof in in Jan. 2016. Darlington’s solar panels have saved the school district about between 20-30% a year in energy charges. The system came with a 25-year warranty, though it should last about 40 years in total. 

According to the Darlington Community School District, the solar panels came about when a group of students joined a think tank with community leaders, staff and school board members. They desired to decrease the district’s carbon footprint with renewable energy, and wanted to save energy costs in the process. 

The $350,000 project came with sizable grant relief that is still available today. Among the grants Darlington received were $63,000 from a Focus on Energy, and $61,000 from the USDA. The school was estimating to save about $12,500 a year in energy costs, and take less than a decade to pay off the remainder, with all the future energy savings directly helping the district. Darlington went with Pewaukee-based SunVest Solar for installation. The Monroe students of Earth Club also using SunVest Solar.

SunVest Solar offers business, nonprofit, and utility partners expertise, including in the areas of development, construction, financing and operations.

“Our mission is to advance clean energy nationwide with turn key, cost-effective solar solutions,” the firm states on the front page of its website. “We develop community solar projects in key markets nationwide, distributed solar for commercial/industrial customers, and solar assets for utilities, co-ops and municipalities.”

They have funded projects nationwide, including many in Wisconsin alone. Projects other than Darlington include a parking canopy over the Clark Building in Milwaukee, a 250 kW community solar array for the City of New Richmond, and a 5,700 panel system for Madison College, which gives the school about 25% of its annual use of all energy, and 100% of use during sunny days.