Robust Public Support for Revised Regional School Budget


Photo: Greenwich Central School District

Report of the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, April 1, 2024

This meeting was held in hybrid format and was recorded. It can be viewed here


  • The Regional School Committee’s revised budget that restores some cuts necessitated by the Town Manager’s original budget guidelines, was referred to the Finance Committee.
  • Community Preservation Act funds were approved despite controversy over a proposal to study historic structures in East Amherst.
  • A motion to reduce the size of the Charter Review Committee was defeated.
  • The Residential Rental Registration bylaw was introduced for first reading.

Lynn Griesemer (President, District 2), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, Ellisha Walker (at large), Freke Ette and Cathy Schoen (District 1), Pat DeAngelis (District 2), Hala Lord and George Ryan (District 3), Pam Rooney and Jennifer Taub (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier and Bob Hegner (District 5). Walker and Devlin Gauthier participated remotely.

Staff: Paul Bockelman (Town Manager) and Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

Public and Educators Voice Vigorous Support for Increased Funding for Regional Schools
Educators, parents, and supporters of the Amherst Public Schools showed up in force to support a revised budget passed by the Regional School Committee at its March 13 meeting. The original budget proposed by Interim School Superintendent Doug Slaughter, which was based on the four percent increase allotted by the towns, was $1.7 million short for maintaining level services. Despite using the entire remaining $500,000 of ESSER (COVID relief) funds, it required the elimination of 20 positions, a proposed loss of the Restorative Justice programs at both the middle school and high school, and severe cutbacks to world languages at the middle school and academic support at both schools, among other decreases. 

The school committee found those cuts unacceptable and directed Slaughter to restore all student-facing positions. The result was a budget that is 8.29% greater than in FY2024, increasing Amherst’s share by almost $750,000 over what was directed by the Town Manager in his budget guidelines. The revised budget still results in losses of positions in the central office, the loss of a guidance counselor and custodian at both schools, and postponing $300,000 in capital expenses. Three of the four towns in the region must approve the budget increase for it to go into effect.

In public comment, Toni Cunningham noted that the schools cannot control most of the increases in costs, such as for health insurance, utilities, and transportation. She said that children should not have to suffer the consequences of these increases, and noted that the town’s raising contributions from 10 to 10.5% to its capital fund are squeezing operating budgets, saying that the regional school budget increase is similar to the interest that needs to be paid on the additional borrowing recently approved for the Jones Library project.

Allegra Clark and Nina Mankin pointed to the decline in the school’s ranking from “one of the best in the state” to “mediocre” over the past 20 years, with the gradual chipping away at programs. 

Amber Cano Martin said the original budget proposed cutting services for the most vulnerable students. “You can’t run a school system this way, “she said.

Mika Magee, a special education teacher at the middle school, asked where the town sees itself in 10 to 20 years—as a flourishing community with excellent schools or a town with plummeting property values and failing schools. “Our future is in our youth,” she said.

Debora Ferreira, Kathleen Mitchell, and high school librarian Ella Stocker advocated for maintaining the Restorative Justice program. Stocker said that the cuts imperil enrichment activities for the most advanced students and widen the cracks between them and the most vulnerable. 

Several world language teachers focused on the cuts to the middle school language programs, which they said would make it almost impossible for students to qualify for Advanced Placement exams and might encourage those who can afford it to attend private or charter schools. 

Middle school art teacher Irene Laroche noted that class sizes at the middle school are already larger than in previous years, and said that the loss of a special education teacher for each team means that all special education students are in one team. 

Georgia Malcolm pointed out that, while the town and government are mostly white, the schools are much more diverse, and that underfunding them is a form of subconscious racism.

Council Refers School Budget to Finance Committee
Following Slaughter’s presentation of the revised budget, Amherst School Committee Chair Sarah Marshall summed up the situation saying, “All of the speakers during public comment were spot on in outlining the damage that will be caused by the cuts that would be needed to limit the assessment increases to four percent. Education has long been a priority and economic driver for the Amherst area. A significant portion of the area population lives here specifically because of the educational offerings. Unfortunately, the ability of the regional schools to offer the high quality programming that so many people demand and that our children surely deserve is threatened by inadequate funding, chiefly at the state level. After years of whittling away at programs and staff, at administrators and classes, we were faced with the prospect of devastating cuts that cannot be made without significant changes to student learning and staff responsibilities. We implore you to fund the budget that we have submitted. We know it is a big ask, but parents, students, educators and staff tell us loudly and clearly that a shrinking and mediocre program is unacceptable.”

Councilor Cathy Schoen (District 1) noted that despite high inflation, state funding for schools has increased less than one percent per year. Also, the way charter schools are funded is at a great cost to public schools. She hoped both situations would be changed in the state legislature. 

Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) was more critical of the school system’s budget planning. She asked why the schools did not do more to prepare for the loss of ESSER funds, and why this suggested budget increase was not raised at the Four Towns meeting in February. 

George Ryan (District 3) wondered why ESSER funds were used for ongoing expenses, instead of one-time use. 

Slaughter responded that constraints on the ESSER funds made it difficult to use them for capital projects. He also said that extra  staff had been hired during COVID, and some of those staff are still needed. In addition, he indicated that the new budget is intended to form the basis for future budgets; it is not a one-year increase. 

Andy Steinberg (at large) said that Amherst is not alone. The town is one of 208 in the state that did not benefit from the Fair Share Act, which increased taxes on the wealthy to fund public education and transportation. Only the most needy school districts saw any “Fair Share” money, which also funded preschool and community college. Also, he reminded the council that funding for schools is largely from property taxes, which are limited to a 2.5% increase every year, less than the rate of inflation. He also noted that the extra money being requested is comparable to the cost of funding the entire  CRESS (alternative responders) program. He did not think reserve funds should be used for the schools, because they are needed for a new fire station and DPW building.

President Lynn Griesemer said that the schools need to plan for what the future population and its demographics of Amherst will be. She noted that (the year-round population of) Amherst is not growing, and that people are migrating out of the Northeast. She hopes we can find creative solutions to how we can offer a good education—across the commonwealth. 

Hanneke asked Town Manager Paul Bockelman if Amherst College has offered any money specifically for the schools. Bockelman replied that the college has contributed $75,000 to the regional schools and $10,000 to the elementary schools in the past year, and that this is “well below what they need to contribute.”. 

The council voted unanimously to refer the regional school budget to the Finance Committee. It was discussed at their meeting on April 2. A Four Towns meeting is tentatively scheduled for April 20.

Community Preservation Act Spending Approved
The Finance Committee then reported to the Council, recommending 10 of the 11 projects endorsed by the Community Preservation Act Committee (CPAC), but excluding the $20,000 requested by the Local Historic District Commission (LDHC) to hire a consultant to document historic structures in the East Amherst Village Center. Finance Committee Chair Bob Hegner (District 5) said the committee approved of the project, but disliked some of the wording in the proposal, which stated:

The [East Amherst] district, consisting of 49 historic properties and 12 “intrusions,” and [a Local Historic District] prevents the construction of pre-fab, shoddily built student hotels, which detract from and devalue the town and benefit only a handful of landlords who profit by them.

The Finance Committee suggested that the LHDC work with the CPA committee to rework the proposal.

When a public forum on the projects recommended by CPAC was held on March 18, no such concerns were raised but at this meeting, Hanneke and Pat DeAngelis (District 2) saw the wording in the East Village proposal as being “anti-development,”and expressed concern that an East Amherst Local Historic District might be  created in the future. DeAngelis complained, “It’s clearly designed to stop development that we need. And the language is the true language of the people who are forming this committee, so I would not be able to support this—now or in the future.” 

Jennifer Taub (District 4), whose husband is a member of the LHDC, explained that the purpose of creating a local historic district is not to stop development, and cited several planned and completed projects in the town’s two existing local historic districts, the Sunset—Fearing and Emily Dickinson local historic districts.

Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) spoke against trying to wordsmith a document when its intent is supported by the Finance Committee. CPAC Chair Sam McLeod also noted that the committee has no mechanism to revise an application after the submission date has passed.

Bockelman said that he previously worked at the Cambridge Historical Commission, which is a local historic preservation commission. He stated, “I walk through East Amherst a lot, and I think that this area needs to be examined. It’s the historic center of the town of Amherst. There are a lot of buildings built in the 1700s and early 1800s that are constructively being demolished because they’re not being maintained. So, I think that the town should be proactive, and looking at this area is a very, very first step. Ultimately it could become a local historic district. That’s again a vote of the council to even begin that process.”

George Ryan (District 3) then moved to restore the LHDC proposal to the list of projects recommended for CPA funding. His motion passed handily, with only Hanneke and DeAngelis voting no. Hanneke then requested that the East Amherst proposal be voted on separately from the full CPA allocation. In that separate vote, only she and DeAngelis opposed it. The rest of the CPA projects passed unanimously.

Charter Review Committee to Remain a Nine-Member Body
Devlin Gauthier, chair of the Governance, Organization, and Legislation (GOL) committee, said that the committee has only received 15 applications (one applicant withdrew) for the nine-member Charter Review Committee, which was considered an “insufficient” pool by some members of GOL. At its March 21 meeting, GOL voted 4-1 to recommend lowering the number of residents on the Charter Review from nine to seven. Griesemer was the lone no vote. She expressed worry that attrition during the committee’s work would lower the number even further. 

Ryan, who is a member of GOL, said he was anxious for the committee to begin its work, and thought, with the current applicant pool, “we could put seven solid individuals on that body” and that “If you [the councilors] want to keep it at nine, we’re still going to keep looking for bodies.” Freke Ette (District 1), another GOL member, said he preferred keeping the number at nine because it would provide a greater variety of viewpoints. 

Pam Rooney (District 4) and Schoen were still puzzled as to why the number of applicants was deemed insufficient, when  it is far more than the number of positions. Devlin Gauthier told them that, even though the number of applicants seemed adequate, there is not “a great diversity of age, gender identity, race, ethnicity, and address.” Hanneke said that not all applicants submit the statements of interest needed to continue the process. Ellisha Walker (at large) said diversity of opinions is as important as demographic diversity. 

The council defeated a motion, by a vote of 5–8,.to reduce the size of the committee; Devlin Gauthier, Hanneke, Hegner, Steinberg, and Ryan voted in favor of it.

Residential Rental Registration Bylaw Up for a Vote April 8
Rooney, Chair of the Community Resources Committee (CRC), presented the first reading of the revised residential Rental Registration bylaw to replace bylaw 3.50. The new bylaw will probably be voted on at the April 8 council meeting. The new registration program will be supported by 66% of the fees contributed by UMass in its strategic partnership agreement. The program also has increased registration fees and requires inspections of rental properties every five years. 

Building Commissioner Rob Morra said that another inspector will be hired this spring to develop checklists and update the software to begin the program. Another inspector will be hired by July, 2025 and the five-year cycle of inspections will begin then. The program is meant to be self-supporting. 

Schoen worried about the creation of a new bureaucracy to deal with relatively few problem houses, and also that some of the increased fees will be passed on to renters. Walker advised a robust outreach program to renters, because she has heard rumors that under the new bylaw, the town will be able to inspect apartments at any time, with no warning to tenants, and that rents will be raised significantly.

This meeting was adjourned at 10:52. The Town Council will next meet on April 8.

Spread the love

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.