Mohawk Trail, Hawlemont schools review budget with Charlemont officials

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 02-17-2023 7:08 PM

CHARLEMONT — As the Mohawk Trail and Hawlemont regional school districts finish creating their proposed budgets ahead of a pair of public hearings, administrators have begun meeting with town officials to hear their thoughts.

Superintendent Sheryl Stanton and Business Administrator William Lataille presented these preliminary budgets at a joint meeting with the Charlemont Selectboard and the Finance Committee on Wednesday.

The budgets for the two school districts, which are still being finalized, are expected to remain relatively stable for the next three years despite drastic changes in the district, according to Stanton. The school districts received COVID-19 relief monies from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER), as well as earmarked money from state politicians. The district plans on using this money to decrease the overall budget and delay using funds from their School Choice account. When COVID-19 relief funds run out, the districts will use the School Choice funds from the past couple of years to keep the budget stable, making up for the drop in aid.

For Hawlemont, there is approximately $70,000 left of ESSER funds to use for FY24, out of $238,000 total. In June 2022, legislators worked with Stanton to fund a $100,000 earmark to help Hawlemont with some funding challenges as a result of declining enrollment. This earmark will be used to help replenish the declining School Choice funding, helping to offset the assessments to the towns for FY24 and, if possible, FY25.

Mohawk Trail received roughly $1.48 million in ESSER funds and will finish its remaining sum in FY24.

Stanton explained the district plans to keep the budget stable for the next couple years as it gets ready to make large changes. The first part of a sustainability study is underway and should be finished by April. The study will analyze enrollment, financial conditions, educational programming and facilities. The second part will make recommendations on how the district can be more sustainable.

There are four elementary schools and one high school in the two districts. Stanton said the districts may look to consolidate and close schools or become a one-campus district, based on the study results.

“To have three years to do that work is important,” Stanton said. “The community won’t see us as reactionary. We are being thoughtful. We are being prudent.”

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Stanton continued by saying the schools operate on a bare-bones budget, without the possibility of cutting programs to make the operating costs go down.

“You can’t reduce your way out of the issue,” she said. Instead, the district must look to reorganizing to find ways to reduce the budget.

Enrollment is expected to remain steady at Hawlemont next year. Seventeen students are graduating and 17 more are entering pre-K.

“Net zero is a positive compared to the rest of the county,” Stanton said at the meeting, referring to many schools that experience declining enrollment every year.

She explained Mohawk Trail is losing many students to Frontier Regional School as they are perceived to offer a better sports program. Hawlemont is also losing students to School Choice and private schools. Stanton explained the decline in elementary enrollment is a result of the pandemic, with far more families looking for alternative options such as online learning and homeschooling.

In regards to attracting students, Hawlemont Principal Amber Tolloch said the HAY program (an agriculture-focused curriculum) is the biggest attraction for the elementary school.

Mohawk Trail is looking to partner with Greenfield Community College to make a dual enrollment program in a rural setting. Stanton explained most dual enrollment programs typically focus on first-generation students with access to public transportation. Stanton said the district will look at remote learning opportunities through the college or find ways around transportation issues in the region.

The Mohawk Trail budget hearing will take place on Thursday, March 9, at 6:30 p.m. and Hawlemont’s budget hearing will take place on Monday, March 13.

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-930-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.

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