In light of expected town budget shortfalls related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Superintendent Michael Morris has proposed about $600,000 in cuts to the 2021 Amherst elementary school operating budget, falling short of the goal laid out by the Town by a few thousand dollars.
The cuts attempt to achieve a town-mandated goal of “level funding” (i.e., same total amount as last fiscal year), which is a lower target than the previous “level services” goal (i.e., maintaining same levels of staffing and other services, which would entail a total budget increase). Changes to the Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) operating budget do not quite meet the goal laid out by the Town, and the capital budget continues to call for nearly $100,000 in vehicle purchases while putting aside HVAC and maintenance needs. The original budget, approved in March, can be found here.
The Superintendent proposed pre-paying some out-of-district tuition costs ($70,000) for the next school year using unspent FY20 monies. Approximately 14% of School Choice reserve funds ($123,000) will be spent and the Federal CARES Act will provide another $186,000 in revenue. As at the regional level, there are no plans for across-the-board salary freezes or pay cuts.
The balance of the nearly $600,000 in cuts comes from a combination of one job loss, curricular support restrictions, and elimination of funding for various stipends and studies. A part-time intervention teacher position has been cut ($40,000) and English Language Learner staffing has been streamlined ($15,000). Funding for partnerships with community resources for theatre enrichment curriculum ($30,000) and some support for implementing the new math curriculum ($12,000) have been cut. Also proposed are a one-year hiatus in Spanish classes for staff ($15,000) and elimination of staff wellness funds ($5,000). Deferment of spending related to 6th grade will save a little over $50,000 (ELA curricular review, and summer work to study the possible repositioning of 6th grade to the middle school). Reductions in professional development and travel, consultants, and stipends for a steering group for the elementary school building study will save $5,000 each. Approximately $13,000 in travel expenses remain in the budget.
The capital budget cuts included $40,000 of heating/air conditioning (HVAC) work at Crocker Farm (the first of well over $600,000 in such repairs budgeted over 10 years), as well as $150,000 in interior improvements (ADA, water fountains, and carpet tiles), and $20,000 in security enhancements throughout the three buildings. Although $70,000 in continuing repairs to the Fort River roof and $20,000 in asbestos abatement were removed from the budget, Schools’ Finance Director, Doug Slaughter pointed out that there are unspent funds from prior years’ capital requests that can be used to pursue this work. Unlike during the Regional School Committee budget discussion, no one on the Amherst School Committee questioned whether eliminating expenditures aimed at improving ventilation during a pandemic should be reconsidered.
While other expenses such as computers, copiers, and furniture were significantly reduced or removed, Morris and Slaughter advised retaining the purchase of a new snow plow ($50,000) and a Special Education van ($48,000) to maintain a fleet with two back-up vehicles. They argued that the age of the truck, and anticipated increased transportation demands to potentially move students around to other buildings because of social distancing recommendations during the pandemic, warranted their retention. The rental of a back-up air conditioning chiller for $110,000 was cut.
School Committee member Kerry Spitzer noted that next school year involves a great many unknowns with associated costs that are not reflected in the budget revisions. Peter Demling said that resources will be needed and indicated that the Town Council should be aware that they may be asked for additional funds for the schools. The revised capital budget does add $75,000 in capital expenses for COVID-19 related infrastructure needs, but the operating budget does not include an allowance for additional staffing costs that may be incurred due to a more dispersed delivery of education.
The video of the May 19 Amherst School Committee meeting where this was discussed can be found here. The committee plans to vote on this budget at its meeting next week (May 26).