Regional School District Towns Address Budget for the Coming Year

Amherst Regional High School. Photo: Wikipedia (Creative Commons).

Report on Four Towns Meeting (December 5, 2020)

This year’s Four Towns meeting was chaired by School Superintendent Mike Morris. Representatives of the selectboards, finance committees, and school committees of Amherst, Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury were in attendance over Zoom. Also present were the Amherst Town Council, State Representative Mindy Domb, and State Senator Jo Comerford.

Morris opened the meeting and thanked Domb and Comerford for their continuous support and advocacy for our schools. He stated that there would be no public comment at this meeting and that no votes would be taken. There will be a follow-up meeting early in 2021 when, hopefully, the financial picture of the schools and state will be clearer. 

Regional School Committee Chair Allison McDonald welcomed the attendees and praised all for extraordinary work in this challenging year.


Report from Finance Director Doug Slaughter

Most of the meeting involved a report on the financial picture of the Regional School District. This can be viewed at https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/53925/4townFY22_12052020 . Much of the data is unknown at this time, so a firm budget is not possible at this time. 

Morris stressed that the last two years have been difficult due to rising costs and declining enrollments. There are currently fewer than 900 students in the high school, and some courses and programs, such as child study, have been eliminated. Nevertheless, the district’s schools have earned an A+ rating from Niche. 

Slaughter stressed that there are a lot of unknowns on both the revenue and expense sides of the budget. He is projecting level state funding, but all contracts are up for renegotiation. There is also a state-mandated raise in the minimum wage, which affects hourly employees. He predicts modest increases in transportation costs, pensions, and health insurance. Charter school tuition and income from school choice are unknown, but are predicted to be fairly stable. Special education costs are highly volatile, and one or two children with substantial needs can greatly increase this expense.

The current formula for assessing the cost for each community is a complicated combination of a modified statutory method and a traditional regional allocation. The assessment uses 45 percent under the statutory method. A graph depicting the effect of a 55, 65, and 100 percent statutory method on each town is depicted in the packet. This topic will be discussed further at a later meeting when more specifics about expenses are known.

Projected capital expenses are fairly minimal. Improvement is needed in ventilation through HEPA filters, ventilators, and fans. In addition, the Middle School parking lot needs to be repaved. An application to the Massachusetts School Building Authority for a grant to replace the Middle School roof was rejected for the second year.

In keeping with the guidelines for all Town services, the FY22 Regional School budget will be level funded, which will mean that services will have to be cut. Morris said that they have already reduced the administrative staff, course offerings, and the athletic budget, so any further reductions would impact class size as well as staff who interact with students. Scenarios were given for a $1.4 and $1 million reduction in the budget.


Responses to Attendee Questions

There will be no money for rooftop solar panels or athletic field improvements this year. Amherst Town Councilor Darcy DuMont (District 5) asked about looking into solar canopies for the Middle School parking lot when it is repaved. Slaughter did say that many lights on the parking lots were replaced by energy efficient lamps, at no cost to the school, under the MassSave program. He also said that the Middle School roof would be solar-ready when it is replaced.

In response to a question about projected enrollment by Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1), Morris pointed to a survey the schools conducted of the 82 families who left the district this fall. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1gmJ-qQeNlyAxFmvciDmPYlrgEgbzdl-Y/view . It is unclear how many plan to return when in person classes resume.

Comerford stated that the State is well aware of the issues currently facing schools. The State Senate is discussing how to deal with the decline of enrollment statewide during the pandemic in terms of Chapter 70 funding. She also said that aspects of the recently passed Student Opportunity Act will negatively impact the district. A recent statewide meeting discussed the special challenges of regional school systems.

Each town had a brief meeting among themselves to report what was important to them regarding the schools as far as funding and services. There will be a follow up meeting of Regional School District members, probably in late January, when more data will be known.

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