Some Cuts Restored in Regional School Committee Amended Budget


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Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee, March 13, 2024

This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. 

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

Staff: Doug Slaughter (Interim School Superintendent)

The Regional School Committee (RSC) rejected a proposed budget that included $1.7 million in cuts including 20 staff positions and voted 8-1 for a budget that retains all student-facing staff and programs. At least three of the four towns in the region must approve the increased funding for the schools and, if that happens, all four towns will need to appropriate additional funds.

At the March 8 RSC meeting, the committee heard of the drastic cuts needed to balance the regional budget within the guidelines set by the town of no more than a 4% increase. The proposed budget meant loss of the high school Restorative Justice program, major reductions in world languages at the middle school, the loss of a guidance counselor at each school, a reduction in the number of department heads, and fewer sections of AP math and of PREP Academy (academic support), among other cuts.

These cuts generated extensive resistance from students, parents, staff, and the RSC itself at the March 12 meeting where dozens of parents, students and educators offered public comment attesting to the ways in which the proposed budget would hurt kids and diminish the qualify of education offered by the district.

Several committee members said they could not accept the 4% increase for the fiscal year 2025 budget. Even with the remaining $500,000 of COVID relief funds available for a final time in FY 2025, that budget would result in a loss of $1.7 million in services compared to the current year. The RSC asked Interim Superintendent Doug Slaughter to return to the March 14 meeting with a revised budget with all of the student-facing cuts restored. 

Revised Budget Restores Teacher Positions and Student Programs
Slaughter’s revised budget restored most of the previously eliminated positions, but increased each town’s contribution to 8.2% over FY24 for a total of $941,975 over the original four percent increase presented on March 8. This number is $746,000 less than would be needed to level fund the schools, and hence Slaughter said that some cuts would still be needed. Under the revised budget, Amherst would pay $1,405,305 more, Pelham would pay $82,441 more, Leverett $126,361 more, and Shutesbury $127,954 more than in FY24.

The remaining proposed cuts result from a reduction in 2.21 positions in the central office, a reduction of expenses in the superintendent’s office that were slated to be used for mentoring the incoming superintendent and middle school principal, decreased cost of living raises for administrative staff, a reduction in professional development support, and two custodian positions, among other reductions (see page 6-7 of proposed budget).

All RSC members except Irv Rhodes felt that the committee should not accept the budget proposed on March 8, with the $1.7 million shortfall. They debated whether the funding gap of the  larger budget presented at this meeting should be met by asking for a one-time extra contribution from each of the towns or whether the higher level of funding would become the new base for future budgets. 

RSC member Tilman Wolf thought increasing the base was more prudent since the problem the schools are facing today will likely occur in subsequent years. He said, “It is shocking what will happen to the school if we approve this [original] budget. We must preserve needed services by not making it a one-time commitment.”

Sarah Marshall, however, worried that the towns would not agree to the increase in base funding. 

Bridget Hynes noted that the towns are keeping up with inflation, but the state is not. She said the projected increase in state funding for next year was only 1.9%. She stated, “Passing the previous (smaller)  budget does not align with reality. We can’t meet our stated mission with these proposed cuts. Our responsibility as a school committee is to push for what we need. We shouldn’t cede our power.” She added, “One year of payments on the Jones library [debt] would cover this shortfall.”

Marshall stated that the RSC has more obligations than passing a budget. “We need to be sure that the school opening in August will be smooth,” she said. “If we don’t have a budget by July 1, and go to a month-to-month budget, we won’t know what teachers we will have and what classes will be offered. We don’t want to hand a new superintendent a big mess on the first day.” 

Jennifer Shiao said she was not worried about getting to June 30 without a budget. She admitted that the committee may have to schedule extra meetings and may eventually need to make cuts. But, she said, “We have to try. I would rather show a new superintendent that we fought to keep valuable programs than to hand over a bad budget.” 

Rhodes was confident that the towns would reject the increased funding altogether. He wanted to adopt the original budget that stayed within the guidelines of a four percent increase, and then try to get additional funding from Amherst College. He said, “If we pass this [amended] budget, we are hoping the towns will pass it, but hope is not a plan. This budget will be DOA in Amherst, and the resulting cuts will be worse.

Debra Leonard stated that the schools need to have conversations with the member towns to emphasize that maintaining level services is likely to entail more than a 4% increase in the budget for the foreseeable future. She also felt that the schools should do an efficiency study to ensure that they are spending the money in the most impactful manner, but she acknowledged that this study would take time.

Wolf then suggested delaying some of the capital projects slated for 2025 and 2026, such as paving the school parking lots, fixing the sidewalks, replacing the high school bleachers, and purchasing new theater lighting. These cuts would amount to $260,000 and bring the proposed budget cuts to over $1 million from level funded services. 

The RSC voted 8-1, with Rhodes dissenting, to increase the assessment for the regional schools for each of the four towns by 8.2% for FY25 only and to recommend the $35,748,545 budget. They voted unanimously to delay the suggested portion of capital spending. If approved by at least three towns, this budget will cost Amherst $19,229,322, Pelham $1,087,815, Leverett $1,667,349, and Shutesbury $1,688,342. In future years, the schools hope to obtain support from Amherst College, UMass, and possibly property tax overrides.

Leverett and Shutesbury will hold their town meetings on April 27. If both towns reject the increased assessment, the RSC will need to revise its budget. Pelham’s town meeting is scheduled for May 11. The Amherst assessment must also be approved by the Amherst Town Council. 

Slaughter said he worried about the loss of some of the institutional knowledge about budget shortfalls among town officials. He said, “We haven’t had to make cuts of this magnitude for at least 10 years, but conversations we had then were similar to the ones we are having today.”

Staff must be notified by April 15 if the school might not renew their contract. Because the budget that meets the guidelines includes the elimination of 20 positions, these staff members may begin looking for other jobs. If the increased budget is passed, the notices will be rescinded, but some staff members may be lost anyway. 

RSC Chair Sarabess Kenney said, “The reason I am on the school committee is to give kids a voice. I have decided I could better look at myself in the mirror tomorrow if I voted for the larger budget.”

Leonard said that the larger budget met the values of the district to put people first and to save programs. She admitted she could not decide which of the programs that were proposed to be cut were most important, so she was glad that all were being maintained.

Kenney and Shiao said they will draft a press release regarding the budget deliberations and the accepted proposal in which they will explain why the budget increases are necessary. The town governments will be notified within 48 hours, and a notice will be placed in the newspapers within 10 days.

Rhodes said that, although, as a school committee member, he will support the vote of the RSC, he has a right to submit a minority statement. Hynes said she thought a minority statement would be disrespectful of the hours of deliberation of the committee. Marshall hoped that the minutes of the meetings would reflect the range of opinions expressed.

From the March 12 RSC Meeting

Public Comment
Twenty Five people delivered public comment in-person at the March 12 meeting of the Regional School Committee (RSC). The recording of their comments can be found here beginning at the 21:00 time stamp.  Another 47 people submitted public comment in writing, some with multiple signatories including a comment submitted by the Amherst public schools’ World Language Department with 21 signatures. These written comments were scrolled on the screen at the front of the room but were not readable over GoogleMeet. They can be read here. Nineteen people offered public comment via voicemail. These recordings were played following the scrolling of written public comments and can be found on the recording of the meeting beginning at the 2:02:33 time stamp.  All told, parents, students and teachers offered over two hours of public comment. 

All but one of the comments highlighted how the proposed cuts would hurt students and diminish the quality of education offered by the district. Many of the comments focused specifically on and decried the cuts to middle school language and the elimination of the Restorative Justice Program at Amherst Regional High School. Several advocated for seeking financial support for the public schools from Amherst College.

Two written public comments from that meeting are also posted in this issue of the Indy (see here and here).  Other excerpts can be found in reporting in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.

RSC Forms Committee to Negotiate With Amherst College
The Regional School Committee voted at their meeting on March 12, to create a committee to engage in discussions with Amherst College to seek financial support for and greater partnership wirth the Amherst Public Schools. The action was moved by Bridget Hynes with the following language, “I move to create a negotiation committee of three regional school committee representatives to meet with representatives from Amherst College about long and short-term partnerships and financial contributions to the regional schools, acknowledging past collaborations and looking forward to future partnerships.”  The motion passed 7-2 with Irv Rhodes and Tilman Wolf voting no.  The composition of the committee remains to be determined and no timetable for moving forward with the proposed engagement was established.

At the same meeting, RSC chair Sarabess Kenney indicated that she had begun conversations with people at Amherst College and that those talks seemed fruitful. She did not indicate the precise nature of the talks, how long they had been going on, nor with whom she had been speaking.  She told the RSC, “The college wants to partner with us, and we are trying to make that happen as quickly as possible, in a way that is supportive to the region, and in a way that works for the college,” 

The meeting was adjourned at 9 p.m.

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