Towns Will Consider Larger School Budget. Committee Formed to Explore Amherst College Partnership


Photo: Brian J. Matis, The Longfellow Lead (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)

Report on the Joint Meeting of the Amherst Regional and Union 26 School Committees, March 26, 2024. Part 2

The meeting was held in person in the Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) library and was simulcast on Amherst Media Channel 15 and YouTube.  A recording of the meeting can be viewed here.  12 members of the public viewed the proceedings online at peak and four were present in the library.

Sarabess Kenney (Chair Regional School Committee, Pelham), Irv Rhodes (Chair Union 26, Amherst), Anna Heard (Shutesbury), Bridget Hynes (Amherst), Debra Leonard (Amherst), Sarah Marshall (Chair Amherst School Committee), William Sherr (Pelham), Jennifer Shiao (Amherst), Tilman Wolff (Leverett). Margaret Stancer (Pelham, Union 26). Rhodes participated remotely.

Staff:  Doug Slaughter, Interim School Superintendent

The meeting opened with a discussion of the finalists for the school superintendent’s position. That discussion is reported in a separate article.  

The bulk of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of efforts to seek approval of and funding for the revised school budget with many of the proposed cuts restored. The budget approved by the RSC on March 14, is almost $1 million higher than the initial budget proposal and restores all of the educators and counseling positions that were previously proposed for elimination as well as proposed program reductions, including to World Language, Restorative Justice, Prep Academy, department heads, and paraeducators. 

Moving Forward with School Budget
The assessment amount for each member town under the approved budget is as follows: Amherst: $19.2 million, Pelham: $1.1 million, Leverett: $1.7 million, and Shutesbury: $1.7 million. These amounts reflect an 8.2% increase over the previous fiscal year, which is greater than the budget guidance provided by each of the member towns. The RSC also approved a capital plan for FY25 that is $300,000 less than the original recommendation and postpones a number of non-urgent projects. 

The three member towns with upcoming town meetings have placed the revised budget on their warrants.

Kenney reported that she has met with the Pelham Finance Committee and they said that they would like to see a long-term plan for dealing with the school budget crisis so it is not going to be a “panicked” response every year.  Kenny said she believes that another four-town meeting is needed to talk about a greater contribution from each of the towns.

Ana Heard reported that the Shutesbury  Finance Committee does not feel like the town can afford a higher assessment but they would nonetheless like another four-towns meeting and would like to see what Amherst is going to do. Heard said the Finance Committee feels that an eight percent increase is beyond what they can support.

Tilman Wolf reported that the Leverett Select Board has put the larger budget on the town warrant for the upcoming town meeting with the following qualifications.

1. They insist that there needs to be another four-towns meeting.

2.  They are dissatisfied with the RSC’s having the budget shortfall discussions so late in the process.   

3. They are uncomfortable with the idea of increasing the base budget.

4. They insist that the proposal on the warrant will be for a one-time increase to accommodate the recommended RSC budget.

Sarah Marshall said that she has not heard from the Amherst Finance Committee or the Amherst Town Council and is not even certain that the budget approved by the RSC has been referred to the Finance Committee.

Debra Leonard said she has heard that the approved budget will be referred to the next Finance Committee meeting where it is not expected to be approved. The Finance Committee meets next on April 2

Slaughter reported that he will be presenting the RSC budget at the Amherst Town Council meeting at its meeting on April 1.  He indicated that the possible date for another four-towns meeting would be April 20.

Liaison Subcommittee with Amherst College              
There was a long discussion about establishing a subcommittee to explore strategic partnerships with Amherst College with one aim being to seek greater support from the college for the Amherst Public Schools. There was disagreement over what the precise goals of the subcommittee should be, who ought to populate the committee, and whether the committee’s meetings with Amherst College representatives would be subject to the Open Meeting Law (OML). 

In the end, the RSC voted 8-0-1 with Wolf abstaining “to create a subcommittee of four Regional School Committee representatives to discuss long and short term partnerships and financial contributions from Amherst College to the regional schools.”

It was agreed that the committee could designate the interim superintendent or his designee to meet with representatives at Amherst College and that any two members of the four member committee could engage in discussions with representatives from Amherst College without violating OML.  The members nominated to the committee were Ana Heard, Debra Leonard, Bridget Hynes, and Sarabess Kenney, al to be appointed by RSC chair Kenney.

Superintendent’s Update
Slaughter offered the following announcements:

  • Nat Woodruff, Engineering and Technology Department Head, worked with several female students who wanted to launch a Women in Engineering club at ARHS to apply for a Society of Women Engineers club designation. Their application has now been approved, which, he said, is fantastic news for ARHS. “This means that our club is now part of a larger and well-established organization that can support them in building the club and making valuable connections,” he said.
  • Last Saturday, the Massachusetts Music Educators Association held their annual All-State Music Festival at Symphony Hall in Boston. As was reported in early February, six ARHS students were among those chosen, via audition, from musicians across the state. The students were Snowden Blue, Mason Cianfrani-Shin, James Hall, Willa Hudson, Sophie Michel, and Cynthia Tian.
  • The 5th Annual ARMS Youth Activist Art Exhibit was also held last Saturday from 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm at Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center in Greenfield.
  • ARHS senior Talvin Dhingra and Sara Barber-Just, journalism teacher and advisor to The Graphic, were presented the prestigious Edmund J. Sullivan Award at Columbia University’s Scholastic Press Association Conference. This award is given to only one high school and one college newspaper or team of journalists in the US.
  • The school will be distributing guidance on eclipse safety and will also be sponsoring special events the day of the eclipse (4/8).
  • The day of the eclipse is also the day that the traffic pattern on South East Street in front of the Fort River School will be changed.

Questions for the Superintendent
Shiao asked for an update on the Track and Field project.

Slaughter responded that new cost estimates will be in soon and will be brought to the RSC in April.  Site evaluation is still going on. He did not mention whether any of the concerns previously raised by the Indy, (e.g., drainage problems that might  be exacerbated by the installation of artificial turf) had been studied or whether necessary testing for pre-existing Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances (PFAS)  in the soil had been conducted.

Shiao requested a written summary of what’s been done so far, as well as a written summary of how the cost estimates were derived.

Heard requested an update on the bullying form and its online functionality and a report on the number of bullying reports that have been received. She also asked whether there is a process for people to file complaints outside of the district’s in-house chain of command.

Leonard asked for an update on the student organization POSH (People Opposed to Sexual Harassment) a social justice club at ARMS whose advisor resigned following complaints from ARMS staff that the student members of POSH had been engaged in the harassment of staff by filing unfounded sexual harassment complaints. Leonard asked if the group was still operating and about its future at the school.

William Sherr reminded the committee that April is sexual assault awareness month and asked if anything is planned for that.

Hynes noted that it has been a year since the LGBTQIA+ crisis at ARMS  and said it would be a good time for the superintendent to give the RSC an update on where the district stands in relation to last year’s events

Policy Amendments Approved
The school committee approved unanimously (9-0) amended language for Identity Governance Administration Policy dealing with curriculum.  It reads in part:

The superintendent will direct curriculum development for the school system. Working with [him or her] will be members of the administrative and professional staff. District curricula must be consistent and sequential across grade levels and schools. Published district curriculum guides will include: mission and goals, alignment with national and state standards, alignment with the district’s Social Justice Commitment, benchmarks for student achievement, and the curriculum articulated by grade level and/or course. Instructional materials will be selected in compliance with the above principles. Superintendent will establish appropriate curriculum committees, including teachers within the appropriate areas of expertise, for the development, review, evaluation and revision of curriculum guides and instructional programs.
Read the complete document here.

The RSC voted unanimously (9-0) to accept the amended policy on public participation at school committee meetings, striking a paragraph that prohibits obscenities. Read the full amended policy here.

Public Comment 
Lamicko Magee and William Roundy,  teachers at ARMS,  thanked the school committee for their support for a larger school budget that prioritizes student needs.

Renta Shepard raised concern about the recently reported addition of antibiotics in Tyson chicken.  She called for vigilance concerning the food served in the Amherst Schools and for an effort to keep that food healthy.  She also endorsed Lamicko Magee to be the new principal at ARMS due her experience and long continuity in the district.

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