Students Urge Funding Shift From Policing To Schools



Does Amherst prioritize the education of young people in this town, or do we prioritize the police? That is the question being posed by some Amherst Regional High School students as they advocate to shift funds from the police department budget to the schools.

A town hall meeting, introduced by Amherst Sunrise Movement founding member and high school senior, Seo-Ho Lee, and co-hosted by Sunrise and Defund413, was held remotely on April 24 and featured a number of high school students and educators. 14-year-old Marisol Bonifaz said that $250,000 of the proposed budget cuts at the elementary and secondary schools are not due to declining enrollment, and would significantly impact art education and special education. 

The proposed cuts to the arts at both the middle and elementary schools (for a total of $75,000) saddened sophomore Leah Neuburger who saw art classrooms as “safe spaces for children who feel overwhelmed.” Rafi Ash, an ARHS ‘22 graduate, felt the decision to cut arts funding was unnecessary because funding will be coming through the Biden stimulus bill.

Salary data presented by ARHS student Julian Hynes showed that the average police staff member earned about $15,000 more than the average school staff member ($72,171 vs. $56,735). Hynes, representing the Sunrise Movement, pointed out that teachers are required to hold a masters degree while police officers can join the force straight out of the academy, with no college education requirement.

In addition to the student activists, three adult educators spoke in support of the students’ efforts. Ashleigh Sayer, English Language Learners (ELL) Department Head at ARHS, and an ARHS graduate, spoke of the growing demographic of “emergent bilinguals,” and the need to provide interpreters. One of the proposed cuts in both the elementary and secondary school budgets is $10,000 for interpreters. (Superintendent Michael Morris previously told the School Committee that a report on the ELL program recommended reducing reliance on interpreters to better integrate English language learners into the general education classroom.)

Physical Education and Health teacher, Elizabeth Haygood, spoke of the dramatic changes she has seen since she began working full time at ARHS in 1998. “My department has gone from 13 [staff members] in 1998 to two in 2021,” she said, adding that the physical education requirement has been cut significantly in that time. Haygood decried the loss of programs like wood shop, auto mechanics, clothing & textiles, and culinary arts, that she said “enhance the whole child.” 

“We are losing students to places like Smith Vocational and Franklin Tech, which are offering those programs,” she said. Similarly, she noted the district is “not putting the time and energy into developing students’ athletic skills.” When combined with the poor condition of facilities like the running track, she said, this has resulted in student athletes leaving Amherst for private schools. The proposed cuts include $53,000 to PE/Health at the middle and high schools. 

Speaking more generally, ARHS Principal Talib Sadiq was also disheartened by cuts to programs over the years. “When we have to make cuts, we lose students,” he said. Sadiq spoke about the need for the Town to reorganize how it spends taxpayer dollars, making public education a higher priority, and urging that greater Payments In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOTs) be sought from UMass and Amherst College.

A representative from Defund413, Allegra Clark (ARHS ‘03), spoke about focusing on the needs of Black, Indigenous, and People Of Color (BIPOC) in the community, and reiterated the call to shift funding away from police and toward community services supporting public safety. Clark shared research from the Community Safety Working Group (CSWG) that showed 93% of calls to the Amherst Police Department are for non-violent incidents or situations. In addition, Clark described research from Arizona State University that illustrated a correlation between underfunded education and increased involvement in the legal system. “Better-resourced communities — not more policed communities — are safer,” she said. Clark shared statements that describe incidents of racial profiling and police brutality in Amherst, provided to the CSWG by young Black males.

The students presented follow-up actions that included a petition and an email campaign, to pressure the Town Council and Town Manager to shift funding from the police to the school budget. They also submitted a letter to the Amherst Bulletin that was published on April 22.

On her public Facebook page, Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne applauded the students’ advocacy efforts. “So proud of our High School students for their involvement and energy to provide the best quality of education for all, and to address systemic racism in education,” she wrote. “Thank you, Sunrise Amherst!”

Sadiq had similar praise for the students: “Organizations and young folks like you all give me a lot of hope for the future.”

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