Shiao Leads Effort To Retain Library Paraeducators

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Wildwood School librarian Susan Wells reads to students in the school library. Photo: Nick Yaffe

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst School Committee, March 14, 2023.  Part 2

In a split 3-2 vote on March 14, the Amherst School Committee approved an elementary schools budget for fiscal year 2024 that is $84,000 above the town’s guidance. 

Since the $26 million proposed town-funded school budget was first presented in February, the town learned that more money is expected from the state. On March 3, Town Finance Director Sean Mangano advised that municipal, library, and school operating budgets will each be allowed a 3% increase rather than the previously advised 2.5%, which amounted to $125,889 more for the elementary schools. 

School Committee Chair Alison McDonald took to social media to announce the additional state aid and asked followers to “Tell the Town Council to direct ALL of this to our schools!” (rather than divide it across town departments). This would increase the elementary schools’ share by an additional $84,000 (i.e., almost $210,000 in total newly-available funds), according to McDonald. She drafted a motion to increase the schools budget by this total amount which would allow fewer proposed staff reductions: from cutting four classroom teachers to cutting only two and from cutting ten paraeducators (including three full-time library paraeducators) to cutting only seven. 

Following extensive public support for retaining the library paraeducators, Jennifer Shiao amended McDonald’s motion by adding the phrase, “and strongly urges the Superintendent and Finance Director to keep the three full-time library paraeducator positions.” 

Although there was broad support from School Committee members for asking the Town Council for more money and for using additional funds to reduce the number of positions to be cut, McDonald and committee member Peter Demling both voted against specifically calling for retaining library paraeducators.

“Paraeducator support is a resource the Superintendent should have the freedom to direct as he sees fit,” Demling said. Both Demling and McDonald said they did not want to “place any more value on the library positions than the other seven paraeducator positions.” 

However, Shiao’s amended motion garnered sufficient support with Ben Herrington and Irv Rhodes both voting yes. 

“I would like to see those positions restored,” Herrington said. Rhodes meanwhile said he would vote yes despite Shiao’s added phrase. “The last part of the motion is meaningless because it’s only urging,” Rhodes said. “It has no teeth, no bite.”

Most of the almost-three-dozen parents who offered public comments advocated against any cuts, expressed support for the Amherst Pelham Education Association (the union that represents teachers, clerical workers, and paraeducators) and the union’s calls for higher pay and cost of living adjustments, and urged a return to in-person negotiations. 

McDonald acknowledged it was a really difficult budget. Regarding the job cuts, she said, “we still have to balance our budget, as painful or as difficult as that may be. It doesn’t mean we don’t care.”

Rather than use the extra funding to make fewer cuts, Superintendent Michael Morris and Schools’ Finance Director Doug Slaughter wanted to put the money into a contingency fund because of the uncertainty of unsettled union contracts and the timing of contractual deadlines to notify staff whether their positions are guaranteed for the fall. “I will roll with what the School Committee votes and the Town Council decides,” Morris said, but when asked by Shiao if the library positions would be restored, he was noncommittal.

The proposed school budget now goes to Town Manager Paul Bockelman who will decide how to allocate the extra state funding before delivering his consolidated budget to the Town Council by May 1. Last year, neither Bockelman nor the Council agreed to a higher request from the School Committee. 

Rhodes didn’t have much hope that the request for the extra $84,000 would be granted. “I expect it to go nowhere in terms of the Town Council,” he said.

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