FOUR TOWN MEETING: TENTATIVE AGREEMENT FOR SPLITTING REGIONAL SCHOOL COSTS AND PRELIMINARY CAPITAL BUDGET ESTIMATES

The 2019 "Four Town Meeting" of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District. Photo: Maria Kopicki.

The “Four Town Meeting” of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District on December 7, 2019 focused on next year’s regional assessment method and proposed capital expenditures. Representatives expressed grudging support for a compromise method of assessing regional school costs that seeks to balance the interests of small towns vs. Amherst.  

Members of the Regional School Committee as well as the Finance Committees and Select Boards/Town Council from Amherst, Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury gathered in Amherst Regional Middle School library. They were joined by State Representatives Mindy Domb (for Amherst and Pelham) and Natalie Blais (for Leverett and Shutesbury), and State Senator Jo Comerford. There was no public comment period, although a few members of the public were in attendance.  

The meeting began with a presentation by Superintendent Mike Morris and Finance Director Sean Mangano. Morris noted that the district offers a “full range of programming” and saw a record number of choice-in applicants this year (i.e., students from other districts seeking to attend the middle or high school). 

Revenue in Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 is expected to increase by ~$86,000 overall due largely to changes in reimbursement at the state level, including that for Transportation Aid and Charter Tuition.  Expenses are projected to increase for salaries, education tuition, a new transportation contract, health insurance, and pensions. To offset the increases, Mangano estimated that cuts elsewhere in the budget totalling roughly $300,000 would be needed to keep the budget in balance, even with the usual ~2.5% annual increase allowed by state law. Mangano cautioned that many of the figures are likely to change and are based on estimates from a variety of sources (e.g., Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) and that there may be uncertain impacts from the recently-passed Massachusetts education funding bill.  

The central topic of debate at this meeting, as it has been for several years now, was the formula used for assessing each town’s portion of the regional school budget. Between 2008 and 2016, a Regional Agreement (based on a 5-year rolling average of student enrollment from each of the four towns) was used for this assessment. This is in contrast to the more complicated “statutory method” of assessment that factors in each town’s property values to determine the financial responsibility of each Town. Last year the towns agreed to use a mix of the two methods: 30% by the statutory method and 70% by the enrollment-only method with an expectation to increase the statutory portion to 40% for FY 2021.

Five options were provided for the individual town representatives to consider how to divide the approximately $21 million of assessment required for FY21. The first two options used a mix of the two methods at 40% and 50% statutory averaged over 5 years to mitigate against yearly fluctuations. The third and fourth were both 100% statutory, with one averaging over 5 years and one based on a single year. The fifth option was the historic method of 100% enrollment-based, again averaged over 5 years.     

The 100% enrollment method offers the best bottom line for Amherst, Pelham and Leverett compared to the other options shown. Amherst and Leverett would have the smallest increases and Pelham would actually save money. Shutesbury’s share, on the other hand, would increase using this method. In contrast, the 100% statutory method without 5 year averaging produces the highest increases for Amherst, Leverett, and Pelham, while Shutesbury would realize the greatest savings (more than 16% over last year). The approximate dollar figure differences between these two extremes for each town are $209,000 for Amherst, $47,000 for Pelham, $105,000 for Leverett, and $361,000 for Shutesbury out of approximate total Town budgets of $83 million, $4.6 million, $6 million, and $6.6 million respectively. 

The entire ~$33 million dollar regional operating budget assumes a 2.5% increase over last year. The percent of this budget paid by each town under each of the methods discussed ranges from 79.8% – 80.9% for Amherst, 4.3% – 4.5% for Pelham, 7.1% – 9.0 % for Leverett, and 7.1% – 8.8% for Shutesbury.   

After Mangano’s presentation, representatives broke into small, town-specific discussion groups. In Amherst’s group, concern was expressed about the proposed 40%/60% split and proposals to shift to even higher percentages of the statutory method. Finance Committee Chair Andy Steinberg noted that Amherst already has a projected FY21 budget deficit of ~$1 million, which would increase to ~$1.36 million if the 40% statutory method was used. He said that the agreement negotiated last year was for an additional 10% in statutory (bringing it to 40%) was just for FY21, with no commitments to higher percentages in the future.  

Town Manager Paul Bockelman emphasized that there are still many unknowns in the figures presented, especially for health insurance costs, and noted that anything more than the 2.96% increase in Amherst’s portion under the 40% method would mean serious cuts on the Town side of the budget. He argued that Amherst has already given up quite a bit in moving from the previously-used 100% enrollment method. Steinberg finished the discussion by stating (without elaboration) that Amherst makes significant contributions and provides services to the Region that are neither recognized nor compensated.

Each town then reported back to the whole group. Pelham indicated support for the 40% statutory method as part of a continued path to using a 100% statutory method. Amherst acknowledged that moving to 40% statutory would be consistent with the agreement made last year but pointed out the possibility that it will further drive up the town’s overall budget deficit. Shutesbury strongly advocated advancing towards the 100% statutory method, noting resident activism toward that goal including a current petition to that effect. The speaker for Shutesbury said they have their own list of Town capital needs to attend to and are already very close to the maximum tax rate allowed by state law ($24.04 of the $25 per $1000 property value). Leverett noted that the increase it would face under the 40% statutory method may force cuts to its elementary school budget. The speaker said Leverett would prefer a 5 year rolling average enrollment method but that they “are willing to play.” He also asked the group to consider a cap on the total financial responsibility for each town. 

Morris and Mangano then presented a “bonus” option (not presented in the packet distributed to the participants prior to the meeting) that used the 50% statutory method but increased the required budget cuts to ~$338,000. No specific line item reductions were proposed; this additional option was put forth to limit the impact on each town’s individual assessment to be no more than that for the 40% statutory method. The result was a reduction in Amherst’s budget increase to 2.56% (from 2.96%) and Pelham’s to 0.65% (from 0.77%) while maintaining Leverett’s increase to 3.36%. Using this method, Shutesbury would experience a larger budget savings (3.52% rather than 1.58%). Amherst School Committee member Peter Demling objected, complaining that this was his first time seeing this additional option and claiming that “There is no fat to trim in this budget.”  

A Leverett Finance Committee member observed that “all the proposals pit the towns against each other” and lamented that what’s missing is a cap on maximum changes for any town that would mitigate against large annual swings, which are particularly difficult for the smaller towns. Leverett Select Board Chair Peter d’Ericco added that their responsibility under the 40% statutory method represents roughly half their budget, and said he is troubled by news reports of eliminating the state cap on property taxes.

Steinberg explained that the inherent problem with the statutory method is that it does not work well in our type of region where there is one large and three much smaller towns. Mangano stated that an additional underlying source of tension is that state revenues do not keep pace with inflation resulting in a shifted burden to municipalities. For example, he said, in 2000, school expenditures were roughly equal between local and state sources, but today state aid has dropped so much that the local component is approximately twice that of the state’s. 

A Pelham Select Board member suggested that because these are preliminary figures, it is hard to assess the actual ultimate effects. He advised staying with last year’s agreement to adopt the 40% statutory method, but advocated for a goal of eventually moving to 100% statutory.

Although Morris mentioned the ongoing study of moving 6th graders into the middle school, the potential financial impacts of this change (including the various scenarios of different Towns opting in or out of such an arrangement) on the regional assessment method were not addressed.

CAPITAL PLAN PROPOSAL

Mangano reviewed the FY21 Regional capital plan that totals ~$400,000. Anticipated work at the High School includes an exhaust fan replacement, air conditioning repairs, girls’ locker room renovation, back parking lot resurfacing (paid for with student parking fees), and demolition of modular classrooms previously used by the Summit Academy. Middle School projects include pool improvements (paid for through fees), engineering costs for replacement of chillers, and front parking lot resurfacing. Accessibility improvements ($50K) and a feasibility study of solar panels ($15K) in both buildings were also listed. Replacement of the middle school roof is still planned but will not be performed until the District is accepted into the MSBA Accelerated Repair program that would cover about two-thirds of the cost.  

Amherst Town Councilor Dorothy Pam asked about a fire suppression system for the Middle School, which Mangano confirmed the building does not currently have. Pam wondered whether this constitutes an emergency. Morris and Mangano acknowledged that they have been hearing from members of the community that this should be a priority and said they will be advising the Regional School Committee to address it. 

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