The Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to accept the recommendation by Superintendent Morris to limit the number of new non-Amherst-resident students who may enter Amherst elementary schools for the 2020-2021 school year to 8-10 kindergarteners.
Every year, the Committee must vote on whether to allow students who live in other towns to attend Amherst’s public schools, called “Choice-In.” Over the last five years, the number of Choice-In elementary students has nearly doubled, from less than 50 to over 90. The lion’s share of Choice-In elementary students attend Wildwood (now ~50), which is roughly twice the number who go to Fort River and Crocker Farm (now ~20 each). The number of Choice-In middle and high school students has likewise grown from around 70 to more than 100 over the same time period.
In the K-12 population, Belchertown has accounted for the largest number from a sending town, rising significantly to more than 50 students this year. Hadley has remained steady at ~25-30; Holyoke, Montague, and South Hadley now contribute nearly 20 students each. The remaining 60 students come from among 22 other towns.
At a recent public hearing on School Choice, and again immediately prior to the School Committee’s vote, Morris recommended that the District restrict offering spots to only 8-10 Kindergarteners for the 2020-2021 school year. He reasoned that the limit was necessary given the anticipated elementary building project as increases in overall enrollment with Choice-In students would have an impact on the size and cost of construction.
School Committee member Peter Demling has previously pointed out that each of these students brings with them $5,000 from their sending towns, more if they require additional services. This is anticipated to amount to approximately half a million dollars in annual operating budget revenue for the elementary school district and $700,000 for the regional school district. He has also argued that the District has not admitted so many Choice-In students that an additional classroom teacher is necessary.
The trend of increasing numbers of Choice-In students in recent years is dramatic. Over the past 5 years, there have been as many as 21 Choice-In students in a single elementary grade, and this year there is an average of 13 Choice-In students per grade. These students are currently distributed into three schools but that may change to two if consolidation of Wildwood and Fort River occurs. This year’s 7th, 8th, and 9th grades have 26-27 Choice-In students each, more than a classroom’s worth of students.
During a similar School Choice discussion at a Regional School Committee meeting last month, the decision was made not to accept middle and high school Choice-In students for the 2020-2021 school year due to projections that this population will continue to rise to 120 students next year. Students who are already enrolled in the Amherst Regional Middle and High Schools and Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury elementary schools are permitted to complete their scholastic careers in the Amherst Regional Public School system.
The District is required by the state to reassess its decision about Choice-In students annually so it will continue to try to balance declining enrollment with an overall operating budget that typically sees a 1-2% annual increase, and an impending school building project, the size and cost of which is heavily influenced by the size of the student body it will serve.
Data compiled from record request from Amherst Regional School District