Superintendent Michael Morris proposed on May 14 nearly $500,000 in cuts to the regional school budget in light of anticipated financial impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, following guidance by the Town Council for level funding of the Fiscal Year 2021. Among his recommendations are two staff reductions: elimination of the Middle School Dean position, and 0.4 FTE (full time equivalent) of an Art teacher who agreed to a leave of absence. A previously proposed cut of 0.4 FTE in World Language staff was reversed in the revised budget. There was no recommendation for across-the-board pay freezes/cuts or other staff reductions.
In explaining the decision to eliminate the Dean position (for a savings of approximately $75,000), Morris explained that he felt a Principal, an Assistant Principal, and a Climate Coordinator should be able to cover the responsibilities. He stressed that his recommendation was not a reflection on any individual. Interviews of three finalists for the Middle School Principal position were held earlier this month, one of whom, Diego Sharon, is current Middle School Dean,. Reached by email, Morris said the Assistant Principal position will be posted when the Principal position is filled. For the past two years, there have been two interim Co-Principals at the Middle School, with a combined pay of approximately $230,000 per year, and no Assistant Principal.
Morris indicated the intention to pre-pay $170,000 in out-of-district tuition costs (for the first 3 months of next year) using unspent FY20 funds as a way to decrease that line item from the FY21 budget. An additional $99,000 will be drawn from the School Choice Fund (approximately 14% of that reserve source). The District is expecting increased participation in the Summit Academy by non-Amherst residents that would provide $50,000 in tuition revenue.
If state support to the District decreases as assumed by $200,000, it will be essentially offset by the recently confirmed influx of federal help via the CARES Act in the amount of $230,000.
Also included in the proposed operating budget cuts are modest decreases in consultant fees ($5,000) and administrative professional development and travel ($5,000). The total professional development budget had been over $140,000, including over $7,000 in travel. Travel expenses from various other departments total nearly $32,000. Consultant fees accounted for approximately $14,000 in the previously approved budget.
Regional School Committee members did not ask for any changes to Morris’ proposed cuts. The recommendation by Town Manager Paul Bockelman for level funding the FY21 budget (keeping the same bottom line as for FY20) assumes that the local economy would be back to normal by January 2021 and that reductions in state aid would be compensated for by drawing from cash reserves. If the financial situation worsens, additional reductions may be required in future months. However, salaries and reductions in unionized staff are not possible after June 15 because of collective bargaining agreements.
Morris also proposed over $300,000 in reductions in the capital budget, eliminating all items except for the costs for taking down a modular structure at the high school that has not been used for several years ($15,000, labeled “Grounds Improvements”) and renovating only one of two walk-in cooler/freezers at the high school ($25,000). $75,000 was added to the budget in anticipation of the need for infrastructure adaptations required by the pandemic. Removed from the capital budget were:
At The High School
replacement of exhaust fans
HVAC work at Summit Academy
renovation of the girl’s locker room
At The Middle School
replacement of the air conditioner chiller
maker space renovation
access control upgrade
Amherst School Committee member Kerry Spitzer questioned the advisability of not attending to items such as the exhaust fans, that could improve air quality. Morris said he would ask Facilities Director Rupert Roy Clark to reassess the recommendation to cut replacement of exhaust fans at the high school from the FY21 budget.
The proposed budget revisions are included in the packet for the May 14 meeting; the pre-COVID budget approved on March 10 is located here. The Regional School Committee is scheduled to vote on the revised budget on May 26. The Amherst School Committee will be discussing elementary school budget changes on May 19. Together, the Regional and Amherst School budgets make up approximately half of the total town budget.