Regional School Committee Seeks Alternatives to Dramatic Budget Cuts


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Assistant Principal: “These Budget Cuts Hurt Students”

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee, March 6, 2024

by Maura Keene and Art Keene

The meeting was held over Google Meet and was recorded.

Sarabess Kenney (Pelham–Chair), William Sherr (Pelham–Acting Chair), Sarah Marshall, Jennifer Shiao, Bridget Hynes, Debra Leonard, and Irv Rhodes (Amherst), Tilman Wolf (Leverett), and Anna Heard (Shutesbury). 

Staff: Doug Slaughter (Interim School Superintendent), Talib Sadiq (Amherst Regional High School Principal), and Miki Gromaki (Assistant Principal)

74 members of the public participated on Google Meet. 

The Amherst Regional School Committee (RSC) met on March 6 to discuss impending budget cuts for AY-25. The regional schools are facing a $1.7 million shortfall, even with the last $500,000 of COVID relief funds available. Earlier in the day, the committee saw for the first time the specific cuts proposed by Interim Superintendent Doug Slaughter.

The proposed FY25 Budget can be viewed here. The PowerPoint presentation outlining the proposed cuts can be viewed here.

The bulk of the meeting was devoted to a presentation of the proposed cuts. This was followed by questions and discussion about options available to the committee, which is required by its district agreement to approve a budget by March 16.

That discussion produced some brainstorming for alternatives to the cuts. While all members of the RSC described the cuts as devastating and intolerable, the members split between those who believed that they had no choice but to approve the budget as presented, given the pressing deadline, and those who insisted that they could not approve this budget and were committed to seeking alternatives to the draconian cuts. The committee asked Slaughter to come to its next meeting with answers to a series of questions about alternatives to the proposed cuts. The committee will meet again on March 12 to consider options.

There was no public comment because the RSC had held a public hearing on the budget last week.

ARHS Principal Decries Lack of Support for Public Schools
High School and Interim Middle School Principal Talib Sadiq began the meeting expressing his frustration with Amherst residents who are not making the public schools a priority. He said that the regional school buildings are in terrible shape. After a rainstorm in September, he had to reassign six classrooms because of leaks and fallen ceiling tiles, and later in the day, the tiles in two more classrooms collapsed. He added that the high school track is in such poor condition that the school can no longer host track meets. Despite knowing that the track needed repair since 2012, no work has been done to remedy the situation. “Despite these great needs,” he stressed, “the town government has decided to put extra money into, and to fundraise for, a new library.” 

He continued, “Amherst has a private college with a $1 billion endowment and the flagship university for the state, but they give only minimal contributions to the public schools. Now, we are trying to ask our underpaid and overworked staff to do more with fewer resources. The enrollment in the schools is down slightly, but there are more high-needs students.” He challenged the RSC members, saying, “What is the school committee going to do about these cuts?”

Cuts to the High School Budget
Miki Gromaki, one of the assistant principals at the high school, reviewed $700,000 of cuts to the budget. She said the priorities were to keep the supports and services for the most vulnerable students intact, to maintain programs, maintain current class sizes, restructure programs for more efficiency, and retain as many licensed staff as possible. 

The new budget plans to reduce the department heads from eleven to seven to save $285,000. Department heads teach one fewer class than other teachers, but are responsible for budgeting, ordering supplies, developing curricular programs, supervising faculty, and filling in for faculty who are out. The reduction in the number of department heads would put extra pressure on those who remain. 

The summer school program budget was also reduced. Few students need to make up classes in the summer at present because the block system allows them to retake classes during the school year. Enrollment in summer school last year was only 14 students, while several years ago it was 125. The budget for teacher training over the summer was also reduced.

Positions that will be eliminated are a half-time math teacher, a half-time health and physical education teacher, a half-time science teacher, and a full-time guidance counselor. These cuts will mean that only one AP math class will be scheduled; students will need to make a choice if it conflicts with another course they want to take. The caseloads of guidance counselors will rise from the low 200s to more than 240 each.

The performing arts department head is taking a semester sabbatical, so money will be saved on that position. The PREP academy, which offers academic intervention for general education students, will be reduced from 12 to 4 quarter periods. 

Both of the deans will be retained, but the position of Restorative Justice (RJ) Coordinator will be eliminated. An attempt to have only one dean a few years ago was not successful. RJ activities will be integrated into the deans’ office. 

The school will add a second special education teacher to the AIMS (Academic Individualized Mainstream Support) program, which now has 32 students. However, two paraeducators will be eliminated from special education, reducing the total size of the department from 47 to 45.

Gromacki concluded, “These cuts hurt students.”

Middle School World Languages and Ensemble Music Programs Reduced
Sadiq said that four core teacher positions in the middle school have been cut in the past two years, but the priority is still to keep class size at about 21. The school will continue to offer four languages (Latin, Spanish, French, and Chinese) and orchestra, band, and chorus in both 7th and 8th grades, language classes will meet three times a week instead of every day to permit a reduction in teachers by 0.2 or 0.3 full-time equivalents for each language.

This change will help in scheduling of exploratory classes in art, drama, physical education, and technology and engineering so that more students can sample them. Currently, students who take both a language and an ensemble music class often have trouble fitting in the exploratory classes. The decrease in language classes will require students to start over at level 1 if they pursue language in high school, instead of taking the second year of the language in ninth grade. Language students will have to double up on a class (i.e. take two levels in the same year) in high school if they want to reach the fifth-year level required for AP credit. The change in schedule will result in a drop in days of language instruction from a total of 231 to 154 over the seventh and eighth grades. This would dramatically alter the quality of language instruction, leaving RSC member Ana Heard to remark that teaching language poorly undermines the likelihood that students will pursue languages in high school. She wondered if it is even worth offering a language if it’s going to be done poorly and incompletely.

Other positions to be eliminated at the middle school are an adjustment counselor and several paraeducators for tech support and physical education. Assistant Principal Rich Ferro said that there is only one physical education teacher, who is male, so eliminating the para means that there is no supervision in the locker room for female students.

The library elective and hip-hop dance exploratory classes are also being cut. Sadiq warned that there has been a budget crisis every year recently, and he could be returning to the RSC next year needing to cut even more classes.

School Committee Responds
School committee member Jennifer Shiao felt that the budget process was less than ideal. She first heard about the $1.7 million shortfall in January, but did not get any more information at the Four Towns meeting in February. In fact, she pointed out that she only received the details of the cuts five hours before this meeting. She identified Proposition 2 ½ as the “enemy” because towns are limited in how much they can raise property taxes each year. She vowed to work to get a Proposition 2 ½ override on the ballot of all four towns next year. For this year, she hoped each town would give a one-time infusion of cash to the schools. Tilman Wolf (Leverett) also asked about a short-term infusion of cash to soften the blow for the 2024–2025 school year. 

Sarah Marshall noted that the state has been reducing its support to public schools over the past decade, and shifting more of the costs onto towns. She said she has been trying to meet with Amherst’s state representative to discuss changing the amount of state aid to the town for education.

Irv Rhodes agreed that the funding formula for public schools, as well as PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) agreements, need to change. 

Heard and Bridget Hynes spoke against the cuts to special education and adjustment counselors. Hynes said that after the difficult year in the middle school over the bullying and mistreatment of trans students, it seems wrong to cut an adjustment counselor. She suggested saving money on trash collection, building solar canopies over the parking lot to save electricity costs, and asking Amherst College for funds. She thought that the school should have a negotiating team to talk to Amherst College, since any contributions arranged with Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman will go to the town and be distributed as he sees fit. She noted that Amherst College is in the top twenty colleges and universities for the size of its endowment, but the other institutions in that group contribute $1 million to $10 million to their host towns, while Amherst College contributes only a minimal amount.

Hynes also decried the elimination of the Restorative Justice (RJ) program. She said, “RJ came to our district as part of a push for equity. What message does this send to the community that we are cutting this now?”

Deb Leonard pointed out that the reimbursement formula for students attending charter schools is a major drain on their local school systems, and we should work to change it.

Marshall asked about the increase in administrative positions in recent years and about positions that were added during COVID. Slaughter said he doesn’t think that there has been much growth in administrative staffing, and explained that some positions were added during COVID but others were eliminated, and still others were shifted to appropriations in the regular budget, but he would need to look into it to come up with a precise answer.

Slaughter explained that if the RSC fails to pass a budget on March 16, “things could get pretty messy quickly.” If three of the four towns vote for the capital or operating budget, it passes; if the towns can’t come to agreement after six months, the state takes over the financial management of the district.

Shiao Proposes Seeking One-time Gift From the Towns
Shiao proposed asking the towns for a one-time gift, totaling about $1 million and apportioned among the towns using the current apportionment method (meaning that Amherst would absorb about 80% of the total and the three other towns about 7 to 8% each).

Marshall and Rhodes suggested that the RSC approve the budget to meet the pressing deadline and then seek ways to ameliorate the cuts.

Shiao disagreed saying, “We are not obligated to pass this budget nor should we be pressured to do so. We have time to approach the leadership in each of the towns and ask whether they would entertain the idea of putting the request for a gift before their government bodies moving forward.”

Hynes concurred saying, “Why would I vote yes on a budget that I, in good conscience, can’t support? I can’t see agreeing to vote for this. I can agree with sending the request for a gift to the towns and seeking other sources of revenue.”

Leonard added, “ We need time to hear from the community before we move forward on this budget.”

William Scherr asked Slaughter if he could provide a menu for clawing back some of the cuts, and Slaughter said that he would come up with a prioritized list for the next meeting.

Heard wondered if there is a way that Slaughter could come up with a budget that puts all of the instructors back, and asked, “ Can we figure out what amount of money we need for that?”

Slaughter responded that it would cost about $1 million.

Rhodes chastised Shiao and Hynes for saying that the RSC doesn’t have to approve this budget.“We are required to approve a budget within the timelines that have been set for us. If we don’t decide, then we are basically telling the town manager to make the decision for us. Saying we don’t have to pass a budget is irresponsible,” he said.

Shaio asked about the possibility of finding some savings by cutting administrative expenses. She asked, “What would happen if every non-student-facing administrator earning over $125,000 was reduced to a 0.8 FTE [full-time equivalent]? What would that look like, and how would that be received? How much money would that save, and how would that impact?”

Heard responded, “We couldn’t cut 20% of the higher administrative work without degrading the operation of the district and creating chaos. And we could ask those administrators to take a salary cut but that’s not reasonable either. We owe it to Doug to come up with an alternative to what they have proposed [referring to Slaughter]. Unless we have a specific alternative that is substantially better, then we should just support the one Doug gave us.”

Proposed Remedies

  • seek a one-time gift of approximately $1 million from the member towns
  • seek a greater PILOT contribution from Amherst College specifically for the Amherst public schools
  • restore teaching faculty and classes by reducing costs in non-student-facing aspects of the budget

Slaughter said he would continue to look at options and welcomed the guidance from the members of the RSC.

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2 thoughts on “Regional School Committee Seeks Alternatives to Dramatic Budget Cuts

  1. Some of our readers are distinguished alumni of our community’s namesake college. How wonderful if they could step forward and address “the Mammoth” in the room, explaining why an annual commitment of a tiny fraction of the college’s nearly $5B endowment toward their host community’s public schools — less than 1/4000=.00025 of which* would cover this year’s shortfall! — may be one of the best long-term investments for the future of both the college and the community.

    *To put this fraction into perspective, it equals what a person with a $1M retirement fund contributes when making a $250 annual donation to a good cause — many ordinary folks contribute a lot more….

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