Town Council: Regional Schools Anticipate $1.2M Budget Cut. New Procedures For Planning Board Appointments Considered


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Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Town Council (April 5, 2021)

The meeting was held via Zoom. A recording can be viewed here.

All members of the Town Council
Nonvoting members of the Finance Committee: Bernie Kubiak, Bob Hegner, and Jane Sheffler.
Regional School Committee representatives: RSC Chair Alison McDonald, Vice Chair Margaret Stancer, Superintendent Mike Morris, and Finance Director Doug Slaughter

The first hour of this five-hour meeting was devoted to a public hearing on the proposed Jones Library demolition/expansion and a vote to borrow money for that project. A report on those proceedings can be viewed here.


  • Public hearing on Jones Library
  • Vote to borrow $35.8M to fund the Jones project
  • Public hearing on the Regional School budget
  • Extension of Deadline for report from the Community Safety Working Group
  • Discussion of associate members for the Planning Board
  • Preliminary discussions about Council appointments to town boards 

Presentation on Regional School Budget
The Regional School budget was taken up off-cycle in order to meet the schedules of the three other towns in the region(Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury), which must vote on their allocations at their upcoming annual town meetings.

The presentation by Alison McDonald showed that 44 percent of the regional students are classified as high needs, an increase of five percent in the past ten years. Regional school students speak over fifty different languages, and more students and staff identify as BiPOC than in the past.

Amherst’s $31.9 million share of the budget involves a $1.2 million cut in level services due to increased budgetary allocations for personnel obligations (78 percent of the total budget). Other significant portions of the budget are $1.7 million for charter school reimbursement, $6.8 million for special education, and $2.3 million for student services, such as guidance and sports.

Over the past year, there has been a 4.7 percent decline in enrollment. Charter school enrollment increased by 47 percent in the past ten years, and the cost for those students attending charter schools went up by 179 percent. The state only reimburses Amherst for 10 percent of that cost. The funding formula for the Regional School budget will be 65 percent by the statutory method and 35 percent by the rolling five-year enrollment figures. This will result in a 2.1 percent increase in Amherst’s share. Pelham will also pay more, while Leverett and Shutesbury will pay slightly less. 

According toFinance Director Doug Slaughter, using  Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act money for upgrades in technology and a one time reduction in healthcare costs will result in a one-time savings of $1.2 million.

Another source of savings will be the elimination of one of two art teachers in the Middle School. Morris said that two art teachers in a 400-student school is out of line with other area schools. This comment raised strong objections from Councilor Dorothy Pam (District 3), who said that the arts would be especially important to students after a year of remote learning.

Darcy DuMont (District 5) presented a letter she received from a high school student asking for some of the money budgeted for the Police Department to be allocated instead to the regional schools.

Public Comment
Gabrielle Gould, Allegra Clark, Kristin Worgess, and high school student Julian Hynes all spoke against the elimination of the second art teacher at the Middle School. Clark spoke from her experience in child services and the criminal justice system. She said children can speak through art, which is especially important with the mental health challenges expected to follow the pandemic. Hynes said students and staff will need extra support next year, and this is a move in the wrong direction. Worgess wondered what would happen to staff if the sixth grade moves into the Middle School. (Morris said the costs for the sixth grade would come from the Amherst Elementary School budget, not the Regional budget.)

Vince O’Connor noted that the Pioneer Valley Performance Arts and Chinese Immersion charter schools developed because of budget cuts during previous recessions. He called for UMass and Amherst College to contribute to the Amherst schools.

Several residents, including Lydia Irons and high school student Marisol Pierce-Bonifaz, recommended shifting money from the police budget to the schools. Irons said that decreasing school funding is a public safety risk. Zoe Crabtree said that the increase in high-needs students and English Language Learners indicates that more services will be needed. Margaret Sawyer was also concerned with cuts to staff, and worried about cuts to the Amherst Family Center. 

Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) pointed out that much of the decrease in school funding is due to cuts in state funding, not the Town’s contribution. She urged residents to write to State Representative Mindy Domb and State Senator Jo Comerford to encourage the State to contribute more to education.

The Council voted to refer the Regional School budget to the Finance Committee.

Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) Requests Extension of Report Deadline Town Manager Paul Bockelman said that the CSWG has hired consultants to help collect data on the interactions of the Amherst Police Department with the BiPOC community. Although the CSWG was supposed to submit their report to Bockelman on March 31, the consultants will not finish their report until the end of April. The CSWG wants two more weeks after that to review the report, so they have requested an extension for the deadline until May 15.

Bockelman is due to present the FY 22 budget to the Council on May 1, but he is confident that he would be able to incorporate the CSWG recommendations for policing into his preliminary budget. He assured the Council that the two vacant positions in the Police Department would not be posted before the budget is discussed and passed.

The extension of the deadline to May 15 passed unanimously.

Associate Memberships For The Planning Board
With the upcoming appointments of two members of the Planning Board due to the expiring terms of Janet McGowan and Doug Marshall, the Community Resources Committee (CRC) has again recommended that there be associate members in addition to the seven regular members. The Zoning Bylaw, Section 10.02 allows associate members, but none have ever been appointed in the history of the Planning Board. 

Councilor Steve Schreiber (District 4), a former Planning Board chair, pointed out that associate members are only permitted to vote on Special Permit applications and “only in the case of absence, inability to act, or conflict of interest of a regular Board member.” Since most of the Planning Board’s deliberations are about Site Plan Reviews, not Special Permits, the function of associate members would be very limited. This is in contrast to the five-member Zoning Board of Appeals, which regularly deals with Special Permits and has usually had associate members.

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said that there is no indication from the Planning Board that associate members are wanted or needed, and Planning Director Chris Brestrup didn’t feel they are necessary. However, Shalini Bahl-Milne said it might be a way to bring new people onto the Board. Cathy Schoen (District 1) and DuMont also wanted to leave the option open. Schoen said she heard from one resident who would like to be an associate member in order to observe the workings of the Board. Pam noted that Planning Board meetings are open to the public, so anyone interested in applying for a position on the Board could easily observe what is involved by watching the meetings. DuMont said she felt uncomfortable discussing this topic when “we know some of the applicants” for the pending vacancies on the Board.

CRC Chair Hanneke said she had not spoken to the Planning Board about their views on associate members. Council President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) said she would contact the chair of the Planning Board to get some feedback. The Council took no action on the matter at this time.

Council Appointments to Committees
Late into the meeting, the Council took up discussion of the policy for appointments to the Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and nonvoting members of the Finance Committee. This has been an ongoing discussion since the Council first took office in December 2018. The now defunct Outreach, Communication and Appointments committee (OCA) spent over a year working on a policy that was then revised by the CRC last year. 

The Governance, Organization and Legislation Committee (GOL) proposed a consistent policy for all appointments (see also Indy report here). This policy gives preference for reappointment for a second three-year term to those members who have been an active member in their first term. The vote in GOL was 4-1 with Hanneke dissenting. She felt that nearly automatic reappointments would “tie the hands” of the Council in choosing new members who possess unique skills that a committee might need. 

GOL Chair, George Ryan (District 3) said he voted with the majority, not because he agreed with it but so the proposal could be brought before the whole Council for discussion. DuMont said that she felt opposition to the policy was being motivated by a desire of some on the CRC to replace McGowan, who has several times presented points of view that differ from those of the Council’s majority. The CRC did not reappoint Michael Birtwistle for a second term last fall, choosing to  appoint three new members. 

Former Organization, Communications and Appointment Committee (OCA) Chair Sarah Swartz (District 1) spoke in favor of the policy. She noted that the same Councilors arguing against giving preference to those seeking a second term had previously advocated for a former Planning Board member who had served more than two terms to be reappointed because he provided needed experience on this technical board. The Council instead appointed McGowan, an attorney in April 2019, based on the recommendation of OCA. 

The matter was not resolved at this meeting.

The meeting adjourned at 11:20 p.m. The Council will meet again on April 12.

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3 thoughts on “Town Council: Regional Schools Anticipate $1.2M Budget Cut. New Procedures For Planning Board Appointments Considered

  1. In the spirit of “form follows function,” I cannot see another function to this tactic that to eliminate members of boards (the planning board, in particular) who question projects favored by the majority of the town council.

    My theory is also based on the plain spoken comments by a town councilor, that it is their political perogative to make appointments that support their agenda; and nobody should have to contend with incumbents from previous casts of councils.

    One would hope that proposals of merit, discussed by the planning board, would benefit from the deeper look at consequences and trends. Those of those that cannot stand the light of day should not exist in our town for generations to come.

    It is undeniable that qualified people with opposing views have systematically been exited from service to our town. That is not good in several obvious ways.

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