School Committee Hears Robust Public Comment On FY24 Budget. Strong Opposition To Staffing Cuts

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Photo: Fair Share Massachusetts

Report On The Meeting OF The Amherst School Committee Meeting, March 14, 2023. Part 1
See Part 2 by Toni Cunningham for a report on ongoing discussions on the budget.

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. The recording can be viewed here.

Present
Allison McDonald (Chair), Peter Demling, Ben Herrington, Irv Rhodes, and Jennifer Shiao.

Staff: Mike Morris (Superintendent) and Doug Slaughter (Finance Director)

There were 41 members of the public attending on Zoom

Parents Group Formed To Support Educators In Contract Negotiations
Amherst resident Abby Hobart said that, after reading Amherst School Committee (SC) Chair Allison McDonald’s explanations about the impasse over contract negotiations with the Amherst Pelham Educators’ Association (APEA) in the Daily Hampshire Gazette and hearing the pleas of educators for fair salary increases at the March 2 meeting, she formed a parents group to support the educators. Many of those parents were present at this meeting to speak, and many sent in comments and voicemails. Hobart said that, according to McDonald, funding level services in the elementary schools will cost 6.1% more than the previous year. “We don’t have a choice about that,” she said. “If teachers were services, we wouldn’t have a choice about that either. We would find the money, like we did for the dog park and the track. Why is it always people that have to suffer?” she asked. 

Olive Barber said she is embarrassed at how this town is treating educators. She realizes that the budget is tight, and it is difficult to fulfill their requests, but “what these educators face daily is much more difficult.” She added that this problem can be solved with open dialog. Katie Veatch agreed. She admitted that serving on the SC is not easy, but “you got into this position because you wanted to help. Now you need to step into that role and fight for the educators. Teachers shouldn’t be the ones who have to fight.”

Monika Brodnicka said she is new to town this year and is shocked at the small salaries that educators are paid based on what they do. She hopes the SC will reconsider how it is engaging with the union, because the current situation is unacceptable to her. 

Several commenters spoke of the importance of paraeducators and the extremely low salaries they are paid. Allegra Clark told of the importance of the library paras to her kindergarten son. Caitlin Worth noted that her son, who is supposed to have one-to-one support, at times had one para assigned to two students, which is a legal and safety issue that could result in extra costs to the school if he needs to go to an out-of-district school because of a lack of support staff. She spoke against cutting any positions.

Alexander Lopez and Erin Edinson, paras at Summit Academy, spoke to the deep commitment of the staff and parents, which should be rewarded by not cutting positions. Edinson said that, despite earning several degrees and licenses, she still makes only $40,000 per year and has had to get a second job to meet her expenses. 

Amber Cano Martin noted that “budgets are value statements” and that while several Amherst police officers make more than $200,000 a year, the school committee is trying to balance the budget on the backs of the paraeducators, especially those in the libraries whose positions are slated to be cut. She noted that the total cost of the APEA demands for the year is $1.2 million. 

Carol Gray had collected more than 220 signatures on a petition over the previous weekend. The petition notes that Amherst educators make 30 to 40% less than their peers in eastern Massachusetts and that their starting salary is $4,000 a year less than in Northampton. The petition supports the APEA request for a 3.25% raise in the coming year, followed by 4% and 5% in the subsequent years. The union also requests a 6% raise for paraeducators. At McDonald’s urging, Gray will deliver the signed petitions to the town clerk.

McDonald then played four recorded voice messages from Lynn Adler, Casey Maloney, Lynnette Arnold and a Crocker Farm parent who spoke to the value of the math intervention teacher to her son. Seventeen  written comments were also submitted, all of them in support of  the educators and their requests. Many urged the SC not to accept the proposed budget, but to try to find additional funding for the schools from the town and the state.

McDonald Gives Update On Negotiations With The APEA
In her Chairperson’s statement, McDonald noted that since both interest-based collaborative bargaining and traditional bargaining did not lead to a resolution in the first half of 2022, the town requested that the state provide a mediator, which does not cost the town any money. The mediator began working with the regional school committee (the bargaining entity for the town) and the APEA in September, but has had difficulty scheduling meetings since then, so there  have only been four sessions since October 12.

Pay increases that are larger than the funding increases from the town [council] … can only come with reductions and cuts in staff…. We don’t undertake the cuts we’re looking at tonight lightly — these are real people and the work they do today is invaluable to our students and to our community.”
Allison McDonald, Chair, Amherst School Committee

She went on to explain that the SC is working with the town and the state to advocate for more money. Even the Fair Share Act passed last year allocates virtually no money to K-12 education. “We have to work with the funding we receive,” she said, “and without a significant source of new funding, budgeted pay increases need to be in line with the annual funding increases we receive from the town — as minimal as they are. Pay increases that are larger than the funding increases from the town, such as the increases that APEA is asking for, can only come with reductions and cuts in staff. Our budgets are a pie, not a river or well of funding. We don’t undertake the cuts we’re looking at tonight lightly — these are real people and the work they do today is invaluable to our students and to our community.”

Proposed Budget Recommended To Town Council Is Greater Than Town Manager Allotted For Schools
The School Committee voted 3-2 (McDonald and Peter Demling voting no) to recommend a budget with $84,000 more than the amount that Town Manager Paul Bockelman recommended, and to urge school officials to keep the paraprofessional positions in the libraries. Link To Toni’s forthcoming article. Last year the committee recommended an additional $54,000 to fund full-time arts and technology teachers at each school, but the request was denied by the Town Council, and the SC took the money out of contingency funds. 

The budget passed at this meeting eliminates two classroom teachers, instead of four, and seven paras instead of ten. There would still be an elimination of 12.42 positions.SC member Irv Rhodes spoke to keeping cuts as far from the classroom as possible. McDonald and Demling disagreed with prioritizing the library paras over others, but Rhodes and Shiao pointed out that the motion left the ultimate decision on what positions to retain up to the school administration.

Superintendent Mike Morris noted that he must give out non-renewal notices for teachers by the middle of April and for paras by June 1, which is before the budget is finalized and before he knows what the enrollment will be. He also said that this budget includes the last of the COVID relief funds, $560,000, so the FY2025 budget will be much more dire. 

School Choice To Continue. Class Sizes Will Stay The Same
The SC voted unanimously to remain in the school choice program, concentrating on admitting “choice” students in kindergarten. Because school choice has resulted in a net loss of students to both area schools and charter schools in recent years and each student that the district retains is worth more than the revenue received for a student who choices into the district, Shiao suggested that a future agenda item be to look into why families leave the district and what can be done to retain them. Demling agreed that this was an important topic and linked it to the high tuition fees that Amherst must pay for area students attending charter schools and the need to change funding of charter schools statewide. 

Morris said that class sizes will remain the same for the coming year with kindergarten and first grade having 17–21 students, second and third grade 19–23 students, and fourth through sixth grade 20–24 students. He stressed that these are not set in stone. For instance, the district would not create another class if there was one student over the guidelines set, and that enrollments can change during the year, requiring flexibility. He also noted that the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) assumes class sizes of 25 in its formula for new school sizes, and that is one reason that the new elementary school planned for the Fort River site is larger and more expensive than the MSBA average. Shiao pointed out that the class size guidelines were developed before the co-teaching model was introduced, and that perhaps they should be examined in light of the fact that there are at least two teachers present in many classrooms.

The Amherst School Committee will next meet on April 11. The Regional School Committee meeting is scheduled for March 28.

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1 thought on “School Committee Hears Robust Public Comment On FY24 Budget. Strong Opposition To Staffing Cuts

  1. With all the controversy about limiting public comments at Town Council meeting, it was refreshing to see the patience with which school committee Chair Allison McDonald made sure everyone who wanted to speak got a chance to express their opinions, even when the comments went over an hour. She even played the voicemail messages received and showed the written comments which were also attached to the agenda. The ZBA also acknowledges the comments it receives. I commend these committees for allowing the public to be heard.

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