Opinion: Does the Town of Amherst Still Value K–12 Education?  Some Thoughts on the Amherst School Budget Crisis


Photo: Art Keene

By Art and Maura Keene

We have been heartbroken by the ongoing proposals for drastic cuts to the Amherst Regional Schools. We believe that further cuts will degrade the district, possibly beyond repair, and we advocate making funding of the Regional School Committee budget the top priority of our town government. Here are some of our thoughts on the matter.

  • We moved to Amherst in 1982 from Florence, MA because of the schools (both here and there). While more affordable opportunities presented themselves elsewhere in the Valley, there was never any doubt where we wanted to be. The Amherst schools had an outstanding reputation — among the best in the Commonwealth, and by far the best in Western Mass. — and that’s where we wanted our kids to get their education.
  • We were not disappointed. Our four children received stellar educations in Amherst with broad, challenging, and gratifying learning opportunities, excellent, visionary staff, and a widely held commitment to excellence.
  • Our kids took advantage of the schools’ great offerings. In the Middle School they benefited from solid language preparation (Russian and French), participation in orchestra and band, an inspiring drama program, and JETS (Junior Engineering Technical Society), which I think won a state championship while one of our kids participated. And sports. Our kids started running cross country and track in middle school and continued through high school graduation. In high school, there was more foreign language, international exchanges, an opportunity to study with a world class Russian professor at Amherst College, AP classes, orchestra, jazz ensemble, a poetry class that they still recall fondly (as middle-aged adults), ceramics, an unforgettable course on the Holocaust, and, in most settings, the inspiration to explore, to question, to learn. And sports. Lots of sports. We know it wasn’t great for everyone and that shortcomings were widely discussed. Racism was a problem then as it is now. But our kids truly benefited and I think it was widely believed that there were few districts in the Commonwealth that did better.
  • Much of what our kids experienced is apparently gone now, as are (I’m told) most of the important vocational offerings like auto shop (and other shops), food science, and fashion design, that both supported kids who were not college bound and offered an encounter with important hands-on, real life skills for those who were.
  • When I (Art) joined the faculty at UMass and got deeply involved in undergraduate pedagogy, my colleagues and I would talk about the challenges experienced by new students in adjusting to the academic demands of college, and I would hear that that was rarely the case for graduates of Amherst Regional High School. They knew how to write, and they knew how to think, and how to read deeply and critically, I was told. They were well prepared for the greater demands of higher education. And in my own experience, working with many ARHS grads, I found this to be true.
  • Sadly the Amherst regional schools are but a shadow of what they once were. There are fewer offerings and opportunities, larger class sizes, and an absence of vision and a missing ethos of excellence among district leadership. For whatever stake you put in rankings, the regional schools, once at the top, are now firmly positioned in the middle of the pack. We most emphatically do not fault the district’s educators for this. Year after year they have had to endure demands to do more with less in increasingly degraded conditions that include classrooms that leak or that do not receive regular custodial attention. 
  • Each year, more is cut away so that we can barely recognize the schools as the same ones that attracted us back in 1982 and served our kids so well. And now the radical cuts that are being proposed — cuts that would, among other things, gut the middle school language program and both the high school and middle school restorative justice programs —  demonstrate a lack of commitment to educational excellence and student support that will doom our schools to an irreparable downward trajectory.
  • Over the years, as the school system has declined from outstanding to mediocre, there has been a marked absence of leadership and of vision, and unfortunately there has been a willingness to accept the downward trajectory of our schools without a fight. There are folks in town government who have said that times have changed — that we can no longer afford to support our schools in the way that we once did. They argue that we are going to have to adjust our expectations to the current fiscal climate. There are those who say that the cuts being discussed are inevitable, and if we don’t make them this year we’ll just have to make them next year so we might as well get on with it. We think such talk would have been beyond imaginable when our kids were in school. 
  • There are things to be done to save our schools, as Regional School Committee member Jennifer Shiao related at the meeting of the Finance Committee last week. Some of these suggestions may seem improbable, they may seem like long shots, but they reflect an unwillingness to just give up, to surrender and say that education just isn’t a top priority in Amherst anymore.
  • There is currently over $24 million in the town’s reserve fund. Town councilors have argued that it can’t be touched except to fund the construction of a fire house or a DPW. We too support those projects, but they are still years in the future and lacking any concrete plans or timetables. The reserves get replenished annually as unspent funds from the previous year’s budget are swept up into free cash — a portion of which goes into reserves. We believe that the $700,000 that the Regional School Committee seeks could be drawn from those reserves without significant consequence. Or maybe, the town could draw part from the reserves, and appeal to Amherst College, which last year donated only $85,000 to the Amherst schools but pledged $1 million to the Jones Library renovation, to make a more substantial gift to help bail out our schools. And speaking of that renovation, the $700,000 that is needed to avoid most, but not all of the cuts, might end up being about the same as the debt service the town agreed to pick up for the Jones Library Trustees for the town’s recent additional borrowing of $10 million for the renovation project. There are town councilors who have said that we will have to spend whatever it takes to complete the library project. They should pledge to spend whatever it takes to ensure that the regional schools don’t fade into embarrassing oblivion.
  • How we budget, how we choose to spend our money, reflects our priorities. You can’t just say, “I value education but I don’t believe we can afford to fund it.” Let’s keep education at the center of Amherst’s brand. Let’s take the money that we have and spend it on our kids’ and grandkids’ futures.

    Art Keene is a resident of District 3, Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at UMass, and the Managing Editor of the Amherst Indy. His four children are graduates of Amherst Regional High School. He was head coach of the ARHS girls cross country team for 17 years.

    Maura Keene is a retired obstetrician-gynecologist at BayState Health Systems. Her four children are graduates of the Amherst schools. She has lived in Amherst since 1982. She is a frequent contributor to the Amherst Indy.
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1 thought on “Opinion: Does the Town of Amherst Still Value K–12 Education?  Some Thoughts on the Amherst School Budget Crisis

  1. Hear, hear!

    The pending cuts to the regional schools are not unlike ripping the roof off the Jones Library or the DPW Headquarters, letting the rain pour in for years, and chanting “What, me worry?”

    The damage done to a generation of our kids will last a lifetime, and it’s completely avoidable:

    • less than 3% of the Town’s $24M in reserves would cover the $700K shortfall

    •so would less than 1/50 of 1% of Amherst College’s nearly $4B endowment

    Once we had a great school….
    Brother… can you spare a dime…?


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