AMHERST SCHOOL COMMITTEE DISCUSSES ENROLLMENT POLICY, REMOTE LEARNING, AND TRYING TO STAY ON TRACK WITH MSBA

Photo: Amherst Media

REPORT ON THE AMHERST SCHOOL COMMITTEE MEETING OF 4/23/20.

The meeting was held virtually via Zoom webcast and was recorded for possible future broadcast.

Caminantes Enrollment policy maintains prioritization for Amherst Residents
The process for enrolling students in the Caminantes dual language program at Fort River elementary school was presented for a vote. The committee discussed how to manage the slots that are held for Spanish speaking students and when to release the handful of slots withheld to accommodate those who move to Amherst over the summer. The proposed policy calls for prioritizing students who attend Fort River first, then those at Wildwood and Crocker Farm, and only making them available to students from outside of Amherst (“Choice-In” students) if any seats are still unfilled in mid-August. Peter Demling expressed his desire to give such students the same priority status as Amherst children who attend WIldwood and Crocker Farm elementary schools but did not make a motion to amend the proposal. The committee voted unanimously to adopt the policy for the next school year. The lottery for enrollment will be held on June 1.

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Families and Staff To Be Surveyed Regarding “Distance Learning 2.0”
Amherst students will continue remote learning for the remainder of the current school year, given Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s order that all schools remain closed. The district’s at-home program, “Distance Learning 2.0”, has been in place since mid-April, and Superintendent Michael Morris indicated that decisions and adjustments to it will be made in 3-week blocks.  He said that staff and families of students would receive a survey on April 24 to assess how the program is going. He also reported that, since the schools closed in mid-March, 20,000 meals have been provided and more than 400 Chromebooks have been distributed to Amherst students. In addition, PGO-sponsored wifi hot spots have been provided to all but 10 families who lacked internet access. The District is continuing to work on providing access for these students. 

Looming School Budget Crisis
Although the third quarter update for FY20 was reported to be favorable and some savings in operations are realized by the schools being unoccupied, the effects of COVID-19 on FY21 are expected to be grave. Reporting on information shared at the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG) and Finance Committee meetings earlier in the day, Morris explained that the plan is to produce a one-month operating budget before June that will be level-funded, as opposed to level-services. Because the budget they had been close to approving before the pandemic was higher than last year, cuts will be necessary to maintain the same level of funding. The budget for the remainder of FY21 will need to be rewritten to reflect expected deep losses in revenue from local and state sources. Morris said at the BCG meeting that, although the state will allow multiple one-month budgets to be created given the extraordinary circumstances, he advised against this strategy. He favors coming to a yearlong budget as quickly as possible to prevent incurring avoidable costs over the summer.  He mentioned potential reductions in staff and contractual guidelines around timing to notify staff. The longer it takes to make decisions, the longer the District would be “paying for unemployment insurance for folks that we may or may not bring back,” according to Morris. He felt that “morally and ethically”, affected workers deserve to know sooner rather than later. 

Capital planning will also be affected by the ominous budget outlook. Morris said that the Joint Capital Planning Committee (JCPC) will also need to meet to revise capital budgets for both schools and the town as a whole, adding that “some things will have to wait”. 

MSBA Process Slowed But Continuing
Morris reported having had a conference call some weeks ago with representatives from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) and Amherst Town Manager, Paul Bockelman. He and Bockelman confirmed that Amherst wished to proceed with a May 1 start of the MSBA’s “eligibility period,” but acknowledged that not all documents would be ready for submission as early as they had hoped. The District is responsible for producing several certificates, including those that will be used to determine what enrollment possibilities will be studied, and how much reimbursement will be available based on the District’s building maintenance practices. After learning of Amherst’s acceptance into the program in December, the plan had been for Bockelman to assemble the School Building Committee for the Town Council’s approval by May. As of this writing, no process for creating this committee has been defined nor has the Town posted any notice for interested parties to submit applications.

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