Opinion: Amherst/Pelham Educators And Staff Are Valued


Photo: Clip Art Library

I am writing this as an expression of my own personal beliefs as an Amherst resident, so I’ll start with a couple of disclosures; I am chair of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, serve on the Amherst School Committee and work in the district as the Assistant Director of Facilities. It’s quite probable that at least one of those positions may inform my opinions here.

For a little over a year, the Amherst Pelham Education Association (APEA) and the School Committee have been negotiating a contract agreement for our educators and support staff. They started off with a type of negotiations (IBB or Interest Based Bargaining) that had previously been used to settle a contract between the district and the teachers’ union. After a short period, the APEA decided they no longer wanted to negotiate using this method and opted for a more traditional “give and take” style of negotiations. Ultimately, the two sides drifted further apart and closer to impasse. That is when the School Committee sought the assistance of the Department of Labor, who then concluded that mediation was necessary to reach an agreement. That brings us to where we are right now.

The conversations that have been going on publicly about negotiations have been heavily charged with emotion and, at times, void of factual data. It’s absolutely true that inflation has been in the ballpark of 8 percent and that 2.5 percent does not close the financial gap for anyone, including the district. It is also worth noting that the four towns in the region have not seen an increase in revenue commensurate with inflation and so, in turn, they have only offered the school committee a 2.5 percent budget increase to fund level services in our schools. Our buildings have not seen a decrease in maintenance needs nor has our facilities department realized any savings that offsets the effects of price hikes. Food service costs have not yielded to inflation. Our transportation department has absorbed the very same increased fuel and operating costs that all of us who work for the district have. The effects of inflation have spared no one.

A grim economic forecast coupled with a test of our values has brought us to a point where we are looking at some very tough decisions this budget season. The School Committee has asked for more money from the four towns that comprise the region. The answer was no, but not because of a lack of valuation of our schools or of our educators but because of a lack of ability to fund the needs of all four towns adequately due to increased costs that don’t match up with revenue. The School Committee has maintained their commitment to our educators by dedicating more than 80 percent of our budget to salaries and benefits. On average, Amherst-Pelham Regional teachers make $85,000 a year, which is $20,000 a year more than Northampton and around $7,000 more than East Longmeadow and Longmeadow. If that doesn’t speak to where our values lie than perhaps the advocacy of some of my colleagues on the School Committee for increased funding for K-12 education at the state level gives a hint as to what we, as a community and on our school committees, value most.

I stand in solidarity with the chair of the Amherst school committee in her plea to the town of Amherst to give every last cent of the additional $345,000 that they will receive from the state and other sources to our schools. I do not disagree with my co-workers in the district, that the cost of living continues to rise at a rate far higher than our increases in compensation, with no relief in regard to the workloads we all share. However, I wholeheartedly disagree with the notion that we don’t value our educators or staff, at the local level. I can’t be the only person who sees that the trickle-down effect of years of anti-public education advocacy at the federal level by one political party and the failure to protect our nation’s most valuable asset (public education) by the other major political party, is exactly how we have gotten to where we are today. It cannot be an obscured fact that the promises of the Fair Share amendment, here in Massachusetts, have not yet come to fruition for our K-12 schools.

The fact of the matter is that I, personally, value our educators and staff very much and have some very deep and meaningful relationships with many of them and so does my child. While I’m not here to speak of behalf of either school committee I sit on, I’m certain that I am not alone in my appreciation for those we trust with educating our children. It is unfair to expect any school board to do so much more with so much less while leaving every aspect of our school system intact. If we could proceed with zero cuts and significant wage increases across the board, we absolutely would. Afterall, we’re talking about a body of elected officials and what better way would there be to get re-elected than to be part of the school committee that did the impossible? There in lies the rub. It is not possible to increase salaries at a rate that exceeds the amount of money we are budgeting while cutting nothing and no one. That is the ugly truth here.

If our country truly valued equitable access to public education, we would not be where we are right now. If our state kept their promises and gave us our fair share of revenue increases, we would not be here. If our local institutes of higher education felt the obligation to ease the financial hardship, we would find ourselves in a far better place, here in Amherst. Public education funding needs to be a priority for our entire country and not just a burden that local municipalities are asked to bear the brunt of. The circumstances we face will continue to devolve until something drastic happens and it is going to take far more than action by a local school board to create that change, and that sad reality is grossly unfair to our children and, ultimately, to the future of public education.

Ben Herrington is Chair of the Amherst Regional School Committee

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14 thoughts on “Opinion: Amherst/Pelham Educators And Staff Are Valued

  1. I don’t envy your position, Ben, but there is a simple step that the School Committee can take. Join the more than 1700 Amherst voters who asked the Town Council not to pursue the costly Jones Library expansion in the November 2021 referendum.

    The School Committee should urge the Town Council to rescind the $35.3 million borrowing authorization for the low priority, over budget and likely unviable library project, which commits $15.8 million to be spent out of the town budget. Do this BEFORE THE MAY 2 OVERRIDE VOTE, so that the library expansion money can be redirected to lower the tax hike required for the new school, and released funds can be allocated to a COLA for educators, repairing roads and other urgent needs.

  2. You need to stop saying that Amherst teachers average $85,000 a year. I don’t know where you found that statistic, but it is wildly incorrect and absolutely untrue. Veteran teachers at the very top step, with a masters degree make less than $80,000. I know because I am one, and I know all my other peers are in the same boat. I do not know a single teacher who makes $85,000 in Amherst. Younger teachers make considerably less than that. First year starting salary is lower than Northampton, around 45,000. I’m sure you found that statistic somewhere and believe it is true, but all you have to do is talk to people Ben and you’ll realize it is bogus. You should really publicly correct this misinformation. Thank you.

  3. I can confirm where this “average $85,000” number comes from, and why it is false.

    This “average salary” statistic comes from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (known as “DESE”). They calculate this number by taking the sum total of per pupil funding and dividing it up by the total number of full-time professionally licensed staff. But per-pupil funding includes things like transportation costs, out-of-district placement tuition, money spent on sub-contracted staff, and materials–things that have nothing to do with how much educators are paid. This ends up padding out the average salary by factoring in costs that have nothing to do with how much professionally licensed educators are paid.

    They do not look at actual educator contracts to calculate this number.

    If you were to look at our last contract (page 42: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jETavS2HE_baIvIjGeNmYIEYkidSj6AH/view) you would see that in order to make $85,000, you would need to have 16 years of service (known as “steps”) and a Doctorate degree that was approved by the Superintendent to have “value to the district”.

    I appreciate that those who use this statistic do think that it is accurate. But–it’s not. News outlets like Masslive regularly publish articles using this incorrect information as well, it’s not just an issue of local officials being misinformed.

  4. The figures about “Average Salary” for teachers do come from the DESE website (profiles.doe.mass.edu), and it is a straight calculation based on reported data from each district in the state. But, it is NOT based on per-pupil-spending.

    It is calculated taking “total teaching salaries, divided by the number of full-time equivalent teachers,” as explained on the DESE website. It is a crude measure intended to enable comparisons across districts and reflects actual salaries, not the salary grids in contracts. So, a district’s “Average Salary” for teachers would be higher if the contracted rates are higher and/or if more of its teachers are at the highest ends of the contracted rates.

    Total teacher salaries also includes additional compensation that is not reflected in the contracted salary grids. For example, stipends such as longevity stipends for service of 10 years and more, or curriculum leader/department head stipends, are included in total teacher salaries.

    For Amherst elementary schools, the total teaching salaries in 2020 (most recent data published by DESE) was $9,664,620 and the FTE count was 120.3. So, the resulting average salary is $80,338.

    For Regional schools, the total teaching salaries was $9,628,651, the FTE count was 112.5 and the average salary is $85,588.

    As a point of fact, 80 teachers in the Region and 73 teachers in Amherst were paid more than $80,000 in FY22. And, 20 teachers in the Region and 20 teachers in Amherst were paid more than $90,000.

  5. Yes, Jeff Lee! 100% agree!!!! “The School Committee should urge the Town Council to rescind the $35.3 million borrowing authorization for the low priority, over budget and likely unviable library project, which commits $15.8 million to be spent out of the town budget. Do this BEFORE THE MAY 2 OVERRIDE VOTE, so that the library expansion money can be redirected to lower the tax hike required for the new school, and released funds can be allocated to a COLA for educators, repairing roads and other urgent needs.”

  6. The library is a failing building that will cost more than 15 million to repair at a minimal level – not to mention that the new library, like the new school building, will save the town operating costs, which are costs that actually COULD be applied to COLA and other annual costs. So the best chance to actually have a positive impact on our operating budget is to move forward with the library project. Everyone wants to make this right for our teachers — and the only way to do that is to come together and push the State to make things right regarding charter school funding, special needs funding, and public education funding generally. Further, we need PILOT programs for our higher education institutions to pay their far share. Thank you Ben for writing this article and for your service on the school committee.

  7. True, Laura, that the Jones Library would benefit from sustainability improvements. But much better to avoid adding 15,000 sq. ft. that need heating and cooling, and resist tearing down a 30-year-old addition and carting it off to the landfill.

    The fact is that utility savings will help the Library budget, but not the Town’s, whose annual library allocation goes to paying staff salaries.

    Let’s scrap the ill-conceived Jones expansion plan and redo it with Amherst’s fiscal constraints in mind. And let’s spend the library’s $35.3 million appropriation on things the Town needs right now.

  8. Yes Jeff, if there were any savings on utility costs at the Jones then they would go to the library and not the town.

    Does anyone know if updated estimates have been shared on what the energy costs might be if the library expansion project were to go ahead, taking into account the proposed energy conserving measures that have been changed or dropped in the most recent designs?

    In FY22, the Jones reportedly spent about $96,000 on utilities. I don’t think there are any PV panels included in the expansion plans at this point so presumably all of the electricity consumed by the larger building would need to be paid for by the library. IIRC, Town Facilities Manager Jeremiah Laplante recently projected no savings on utility costs when he replaces the Town Hall boiler. He said if anything, it may cost a little bit more.

    Of course it is from the operating budget that funds are diverted to pay debt service on capital projects. So if there wasn’t over a million dollars in principal and interest falling due each year to repay debt for the library expansion, those funds could remain in the operating budget and be given to the schools and other town departments to pay better salaries.

  9. The average salary of all school employees, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, janitors, the superintendent, etc is $56,500. I would the highest salary you can make in the district is $90,000 with a PHD and 16 or more years experience. $43,000 is the lowest, so to assume all teachers make around $90,000 would be incorrect, to assume all teachers make around $40,000 would also be incorrect. The schools my parents work at in Hampden County, start teachers at $53,000, nearly $10,000 higher than Amherst does. If you do not agree with these statistics I encourage you to look at the respective APEA contracts. Even if the average salary for teachers was $80,000, it would still be almost 40,000 lower than the average salary of our police officers, none of whom hold doctorate degrees. The average police salary is $118,000 per year. The track and field project could have also paid for more than three years of a contract with pay increases, and the decision to spend that money elsewhere was made by the RSC.

  10. I’m wanting to take a step back here to see the bigger picture. Let’s remember that investing in educators is actually investing in this community’s kids and their futures. Don’t take the excellence of our schools for granted. Over time, demands on educators have risen. The profession is more intense than it has ever been. The country is facing a teacher shortage. The district cannot staff paraeducator, clerical and teaching positions. Turnover is high. Our district pays out to non-unionized contractors to fill gaps. (For how much $? It would be great to know.) This instability is not good for our children. This community prides itself on its educational values and high standards, which reflect in home values. Because of educator expertise, students enjoy a wide range of opportunities that help them achieve their dreams. We should not shortchange our students.

  11. Thank you, Toni, for explaining the distinction between the library and town budgets and pointing out how town government regularly moves money between its own budgetary buckets. Town Councilors who assured us that “the library project won’t raise your taxes” don’t seem to understand this.

    You are right that cost-cutting library design changes like dropping solar panels, reducing CLT and eliminating the saw-toothed roof will reduce energy efficiency. Finegold Alexander Architects have said that they plan to rerun a Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment to update energy use intensity measurements later on in the Design Development phase of the project.

  12. For those who are wondering how teacher salaries compare with what other employees of the town of Amherst receive, here is a link to town salaries for 2022: https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/65613/Town-of-Amherst-Employees-2022-Gross-Wages

    Part of the problem that teachers have is the perception of how much they actually work. In order to be truly effective in the classroom, hours of preparation outside it are needed. This is the work that few see, and even those in the profession can show a willful ignorance of how necessary this prep work is. I taught a 300-level literature course at UMass back in the late 2000s. I had finished my Ph.D. years before. I was paid for 10 hours each week. These hours were determined by the following assumption: Full-time adjuncts teach four courses each semester. They put in a 40-hour work week. That means they spend 10 hours per week on each course. This is laughable: Almost no one puts in just 40 hours to EFFECTIVELY teach that many courses. Had I limited my hours to just those ten for which I was paid, I would have given no homework, no research papers, no tests, and I would have saved myself hours of correcting and agonizing over how to improve the skills and work of poorly prepared students. Yet when I complained to the president of the faculty union, I was told that UMass paid better than other institutions, and so I should just be grateful for what I was getting. Good teachers work hard because of their dedication to their students, and it is shameful that this is not recognized, and that it is exploited for the benefit of others.

  13. Meanwhile, many employees who “work” beyond their scheduled 37.5 hours a week receive time and a half (some with a minimum of 4 hours at that rate, regardless of how long they are actually required to be present beyond the 37.5 hours). So, do we need stronger union contracts for those who don’t benefit from these conditions or a ramping back on those that do?

    James Murphy

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