Regional Schools Facing A Difficult Budget Year
Report on the Amherst Regional School Committee Meeting, March 2, 2023. Part 2
By Maura Keene
This meeting was held in person, and was recorded. It can be viewed here.
Read Part I of the Report On The School Committee meeting here.
Four Towns State That They Cannot Afford More Than 2.5% Budget Increase
The proposed budget for FY2024 for the regional schools is 5.4% over the current year’s budget. Superintendent Mike Morris and Regional School Committee (RSC) member Allison McDonald reported at the recent Four Towns meeting that the regional school district will use the same assessment method for member towns as last year, a combination of the statutory and enrollment methods with 4% “guard rails” placed on the amount of change each town owes. According to School Finance Director Doug Slaughter, Amherst contributes about 80% to the regional school budget. Because the FY2024 budget will contain significant cuts, and the contract with the Amherst Pelham Educators Association (APEA) is still unsettled, towns were asked if they could increase their contributions above the 2.5% budgeted. All four towns stated that they could not afford an increase.
RSC member Peter Demling (Amherst) said that the RSC needs to communicate that it cannot afford more than a 2.5% increase in the current budget. He said the committee was told by the Town Council President Lynn Griesemer and Chair of the Finance Committee Andy Steinberg have informed the committee that the town of Amherst can’t afford more. He said, “We don’t control this [what Amherst can afford]. Ultimately, [the funding shortfall] goes back to the state. We lose $3 million per year to charter schools, and nothing changed at the state level. We all came together to defeat Proposition 2 [expanding charter schools] in 2016, but nothing has changed. Also, there are the broken promises about the benefits of regionalization, with the state agreeing to cover extra transportation costs. Our schools are not going to see any benefit from the recently passed School Opportunity Act. We need to join forces with other school systems and unions to advocate for more state funding.”
Fourteen Staff Positions Eliminated For Next Year
Slaughter said that the FY2024 regional school budget has a shortfall of $1.2 million, despite using the last of the federal ESSER funds allotted for the COVID-19 emergency, which must be used by September 2024. The 2024 budget eliminates 14.4 staff positions, mostly, but not all, by not filling open positions. Included for elimination are two Student Support Coordinators and five paraeducators, some of whom had been hired with COVID grant funds (ESSER). Morris expressed concern, saying that “these are real people and will have a real impact on the students”. He emphasized that the FY25 budget will be even more difficult because ESSER funds will no longer be available. The schools are reserving some of the money it receives for school choice students to be used in the following years, but this will not cover the shortfall.
Morris noted that the possibility of merging the high school and middle school was raised at the Four Towns meeting, but when the issue was studied several years ago, it was found that the cost of renovations to accommodate middle school students at the high school would be about $30 million.
The shortfall in the Amherst school budget is about $900,000.
No Additional School Choice Students To Be Accepted In Regional Schools
Morris also noted that the regional school district has not accepted new school choice students for the past two years because it inherits so many school choice students from the four elementary school districts, and it would not be fair to accept students from outside the district and then not have any courses for them to enroll in. He said there is typically more shift in enrollment in grades 7 and 9, with students both coming into and leaving the district. This makes it hard to plan for accepting school choice students in those grades.
In the past, accepting school choice students in the regional schools would have necessitated hiring more staff, but Morris said that enrollments have been declining and that this is expected to continue in the future, so it may be worth “revisiting the conversation”. He pointed out that as enrollments decrease, the middle and high schools need to evaluate how comprehensive a program they can offer, and they might need to eliminate some course offerings. Both the Amherst School Committee and the Regional School Committee voted unanimously to continue the school choice programs for the coming year.
Slaughter Urges Consideration Of Building Needs
Pelham RSC member Margaret Stancer noted that state aid to schools has declined markedly over recent years. She said that there is a difference in the experience her children had and what her grandchildren now have. Slaughter agreed, saying the schools need a visioning process to advocate for changes in funding and how to meet the needs of the students in the future. He also said that the schools need to consider the needs of the buildings and the energy they require, in future planning.
Because of the projected budget deficit covered by the use of ESSER funds that will not be available in the future, Demling suggested that this money be used to purchase equipment, rather than to maintain positions that would need to be paid for out of operating expenses in subsequent years. RSC members McDonald, Ben Herrington (chair), and Leverett RSC member Craig Cohen disagreed, feeling that reduction in staff positions should be delayed as long as possible.
Committee Supports Universal Free Breakfast And Lunch
Demling spoke passionately about bills before the State House and Senate to make breakfast and lunch free to all students permanently. Free meals for all were started with the COVID-19 emergency declaration, but are due to expire this spring. Morris noted that the free meals have had a positive impact on students. Participation in the lunch program has increased from 40% to 60% of students and from 12% to 26% for breakfast. He said that the previous system was not always successful in respecting the privacy of students who received free meals. This concern about stigmatizing low-income students is no longer an issue with universal free meals. Demling noted that 25% of food insecure students are not eligible for free meals under the previous system.
State Rep. Mindy Domb sent a voice message about the importance of this issue. Demling urged a public outcry and advocacy on the part of school leaders to make sure the free meals program is continued. Both the Amherst SC and the RSC voted unanimously to send a letter to the state legislature and governor in support of the program in future years and to ensure that the program is adequately funded for the rest of the year. RSC member Jennifer Shiao asked that all references to BMI (body mass index) be removed from the letter. The other committee members agreed.
RSC Convened An Executive Session To Discuss Collective Bargaining With The APEA
The RSC adjourned to meet in executive session in order to discuss the ongoing contract talks with the APEA .
3 thoughts on “Regional Schools Facing A Difficult Budget Year”
Thank you for this detailed account of the Amherst and Regional School Committee meetings. There are a couple of points that need correction or clarification:
~ There were no votes taken about school choice at either the Amherst or the Regional SC meetings. The meetings were discussion and public hearings only. The SCs will vote on school choice at their next meetings (Amherst SC on Tuesday, 3/14, Region SC on Tuesday 3/21)
~ The 14.4 in staff reductions in the Regional budget are not being made “mostly” through eliminating unfilled positions. As the Superintendent noted, these are all real people being impacted and it will impact student experience.
Thanks, Maura, for excellent, detailed reporting on the School Committee meetings, as well as the Town positions on their school budgets. It appears that the School Committee is between a rock and a hard place with the apparent lack of resources and the reasonableness of the APEA funding requests. And things will apparently not improve in the foreseeable future. Amherst cannot be alone in facing this dilemma. Are other towns finding ways to retain existing staff, provide staff increases, and live within Town imposed budgets?
Great question, John. Many, many towns across the state are facing this same challenge, and many are facing even larger deficits (steeper cuts) than our districts are. I’ve not seen reports of resolution that doesn’t involve staff cuts yet, but here is a sampling of what other towns are facing: