Budget Deliberation Month Begins. Town Manager’s Budget Shorts Schools


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Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, May 6, 2024

This was a hybrid meeting and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

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). Hegner, Rooney, and Ryan participated remotely.

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

The public and the Town Council received their first presentation on the FY2025 budget that was submitted by the Town Manager on May 1. In addition to the comments provided at this meeting, the public will have the opportunity for input at Finance Committee meetings to be held every Tuesday at 2 p.m. and every Friday at 10 a.m. over Zoom to review the budget in detail. There will also be a public hearing over Zoom on May 21 at 6:30 p.m. and a public forum on the capital budget in early June.

Overview of Proposed Budget from the Finance Department
Finance Department members gave a PowerPoint presentation summarizing the 292-page $97,296,691 municipal budget draft for FY2025. Town Manager Paul Bockelman, Consultant Sandy Pooler, Clerk of the Council Athena O’Keeffe, and Finance Department members Jennifer LaFontaine (Treasurer) and Holly Drake (Acting Director) contributed to the budget, submitted to the council by Bockelman on May 1. The budget includes separate budgets for the municipality, elementary schools, regional schools, Jones Library, capital projects, Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds. Bockelman thanked Amherst Sunrise, an environmentally oriented group of high school students, for finding inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the budget proposal.

Bockelman said that FY25 will be a challenging year for the regional schools and that the Regional School Committee (RSC) has asked for a larger increase in their budget than the four percent recommended for all departments by the Budget Coordinating Group (BCG). Although he said that all other departments stayed within the guidelines,  Sandy Pooler notes below that some departments actually receive more than four percent in the draft budget and some receive less. At their town meetings, Leverett and Shutesbury agreed to raise their contributions to the regional school budget by six percent, a compromise voted at the RSC meeting of April 24 (not recorded). Pelham will vote on the school budget at its town meeting on May 11. If three of the four towns in the region agree on a budget increase, it purportedly will take effect, although Amherst contributes 80% of the budget and is most affected. The regional schools have asked for an additional $355,000 from Amherst for next year to avoid the elimination of as many as 20 student-facing positions, which would reduce the middle school foreign language program and the middle school and high school restorative justice programs. The proposed budget, however, does not include it.

Bockelman noted that many area towns, such as Northampton and South Hadley, are facing similar shortfalls in their school budgets. He told the councilors that he  is responsible for constructing a balanced, sustainable budget that will “maintain the town’s strong financial position.” The proposed budget includes 10.5% for funding capital projects as well as funding for outstanding liabilities and maintaining at least five percent of the budget for reserves.

Consultant and former Finance Director Pooler apologized for not replacing the section on vehicle acquisition from FY2024 in the current budget, as pointed out by Amherst Sunrise. However, he noted that the $2 million allocated for vehicle acquisition is accurate for FY2025. He also noted that some departments in the municipal budget, such as the police department, receive an increase of more than four percent and others receive less, but the total operating budget increase is four percent. The only new positions in the municipal budget, two inspectors for the new residential rental permit program, are expected to be supported by inspection fees in the future. 

He stated that the budget proposal maintains a commitment to affordable housing, climate sustainability, and DEI, and allots money for maintenance of town buildings and roads. The five-year forecast projects an $854,000 deficit in FY2029, which Pooler said “will need to be monitored, especially with the capital projects planned for the future.” The deficit for FY2025 is $500,000, but he said that is likely to be reduced with “state aid and new growth in town.”

Regarding the regional school budget, Bockelman offered no specifics. He said that the needs for the district need to be balanced with the town’s revenue limits, so there needs to be a conversation with the school district, union representatives, and the other towns in the district “to move into a place where a very serious conversation can go forward.”

He encouraged the public to consider what the town has accomplished recently with the solar array on the old landfill, the playgrounds at Groff and Kendrick parks, the North Common renovation under construction now, the North Amherst Library addition, and the planned new net zero elementary school. In addition, some proposed increases in excise tax, hotel tax, and meals tax may add to revenues. He noted the challenge of recruiting and retaining high quality people. 

Councilor Questions and Responses
Pam Rooney (District 4) asked if possible changes to the Jones Library project, necessitated by the bid that exceeded estimates by 18%, would be incorporated into the FY2025 budget. Bockelman replied that he has to decide whether or not to accept the only bid received for the project by June 10, so the council will have that information by the time it votes on the budget.

George Ryan (District 3) asked where the conversations on long-range financial planning discussed in the budget presentation will take place and who will be involved. Bockelman said that former Finance Director Sean Mangano had spoken about a fiscal stability group, composed mostly of staff members, but he thinks elected leaders should be included. He said he is now focused on the regional school district. 

Cathy Schoen (District 1) noted that in the budget, the costs to the town for the Jones Library only include the $15.8 million that the town agreed to contribute, but not the costs associated with the short-term BAN notes. “This makes the $7 million gap between the estimate and the authorized borrowing even more troubling,” she said, pointing out that  “the sooner we can get the Jones information, the better.” 

Jennifer Taub (District 4) asked if the money saved from unfilled positions last year, such as police chief and CRESS director, could be applied to the regional school budget. Pooler replied that every year there are vacancies , and that this is taken into account in the budget. Acting Finance Director Holly Drake indicated that free cash, or unspent money, will not be certified until the fall, so cannot be taken into account for the FY2025 budget, which goes into effect on July 1. 

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) said she heard that Amherst College recently pledged $10 million over ten years to the town, and it seems that education would be a good use of some of that money. Pooler answered that he did not know about money from Amherst College, but added, “I think the school department, given that it has declining enrollment, needs to explain why its budget is going up more than the town’s average annual increase in revenue. They have not answered that question.” Bockelman said that there is money for the schools in the town’s reserves, but did not think it should  be used for a recurring expense like the school operating budget.

Andy Steinberg (at large) said that an estimate for repairing the Jones Library received in 2021 was more than the $15.8 million agreed to by the town for the expansion project, and he thought the repair estimates would be much higher now, like the bid for the library. He also chided the schools for not preparing for the shortfall from the loss of the COVID-19 ESSER funds. 

President Lynn Griesemer (District 2) hoped that discussions would resume between the schools and the town finance departments; they had ended when both Mangano and former School Superintendent Mike Morris left. She said the town needs to work with the schools to “visualize how we see education, and how we are going to make it happen.” With next year’s school budget deficit projected to be even larger than the current one, she concluded, “We can’t be sitting here next year saying, ‘Gee, I wish we had formed that committee.’” 

The FY2025 budget was referred to the Finance Committee for detailed discussion for the rest of the month. 

Public Advocates for Regional Schools
The public comment period was dominated by residents speaking for the additional funding for the regional schools. RSC member Bridget Hynes stated that the committee felt strongly that any budget increase less than six percent “would not allow us to uphold the mission and goals at the heart of the regional school district for inclusive excellence.” She continued to note that “pandemic learning loss is not a thing of the past. We see gaps in algebra, geometry, reading, problem solving, etc. The CDC shows a national mental health crisis in teens and preteens. The budget cuts here would yield a 12% decrease in the district’s teaching staff that includes guidance counselors, school counselors, restorative justice, and support for those who are failing in math and science. I would like to ask this council to ask the Town Manager to pitch in as well.”

Nina Mankin pointed out that she hopes the budget will support the new superintendent and that the town will look at the shortfall systematically and stop slashing things to try to meet a budget limitation. 

Vince O’Connor said that the soon-to-be-released state senate budget may contain additional funds for schools, which he hopes will be used to restore paraprofessional positions at the elementary school libraries so that those libraries will be available every day, and that the regional school budget be increased six percent from the previous year as approved by Leverett and Shutesbury. He asked that the town make a one-time gift to the regional schools to maintain staff positions.

Toni Cunningham said that the FY2025 budget shows $1.1 million for the Jones Library expansion project, and some of that amount could be directed to the operating costs of the regional schools if the embattled project is canceled due to its outsized bid. She also noted that there were no cuts to municipal staffing, yet the budget will require many cuts in the schools. 

Kathleen Mitchell stated that students, parents, educators, school committee members, and the interim school superintendent have argued that a four percent budget increase is not adequate. Her discussions with State Senator Jo Comerford and State Representative Mindy Domb have revealed that the majority of school districts are in similar situations through no fault of their own. “I’m not sure that all of you understand the gravity of the situation facing our schools or feel a responsibility to come together to help fix it,“ she said. “Some comments I have heard from town councilors and Finance Committee members over the last two months have come across as condescending and unsympathetic.”

Rudy Cassidy, a math teacher, said his is one of the 24 positions to be cut, in the budget. He said he was offered a position at the middle school, but he teaches AP calculus and geometry. He also won a Pioneer Valley teacher of excellence award. He added that, as it is, high school students have a 40-minute flex block that is not educational time, totaling 20 days of school per year. He said he is already looking for other positions. 

Lauren Mills also stated that residents “need to be there for our children.”

High school senior Amrita Rutter said, “I want to leave this district better than I found it. I want to go off to college without worrying about my community. This will not happen if restorative justice is cut. That will not happen if we lose guidance counselors, and PREP Academy. There are a hundred ways to fix this problem: redistributing money from the library, from the police, demanding money from Amherst College. You only have to choose one.” 

Amherst Sunrise members Delaney Cheng and Julian Hynes echoed Rutter’s views. 

Allegra Clark, co-chair of the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (CSSJC), reported that the schools asked CRESS responders to serve as lunchroom monitors due to staff shortages. “We are already in a staffing crisis at the schools, so cutting 12% of the staff is going to be disastrous.” 

Rachel Hall urged the town to seek the advice of those closest to the system being impacted, the teachers, students, and children, to grant a six percent budget increase. 

Rich McClean also said his family moved to Amherst because it was a community that prioritized education, and he wants to see it continue to do so.

Margaret Sawyer said her hometown had a slogan, “A town is known by the schools that they keep.” She stated that her children have had amazing experiences in the elementary schools, but her son’s adjustment to the middle school has not been easy, and there has been a lot of heartbreak for the staff there, made worse by the leaking roof and other deficiencies in the building. She added, “Things have already changed. There’s already fear in the schools. There’s already people planning to look for other jobs.”

Caridad Martinez stated that she has never been impressed by the town’s commitment to the schools — “the commitment is really to the rich and wealthy in town, not to the poor working class. Our students need resources, and the people who know what they need are the teachers, students, and families. We’re not going to [provide for these needs] by cutting.” 

Teacher Amy Kalman also decried the impact of the budget cuts, particularly on nontraditional, neurodiverse students, English Language Learners, students who struggle academically, students with disabilities, and students from families with limited financial resources. 

Decision on Amherst Hills Roads Postponed Until May 20
Amherst Hills residents have been advocating since 2019 for the subdivision’s developer, Tofino Associates, to finish their roads so that the town can accept them as town roads. Planning Director Chris Brestrup explained that the Planning Board has been working for a solution to the situation since 2013. In December 2021, the board rescinded the building permits for nine unsold lots in the subdivision until the roads were finished. At the February 21, 2024 meeting, the Planning Board voted unanimously to recommend that the Town Council accept the Amherst Hills roads as town roads, which will mean that the town will be responsible for their upkeep and repairs. The DPW has already been plowing them after storms.

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring attested that the roads now meet the standards for public roads. However, the documents for converting them to public roads were not received in time to be reviewed by the town’s attorney, so the vote was postponed until the May 20 council meeting. 

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) pointed out that in February, Tofino representative Ted Parker agreed to apply the unused surety set aside for Amherst Hills to improve the roads in the Meadows, another Tofino development. She is concerned that ongoing problems with the roads in the Meadows have not been addressed. Bockelman said a report on the Meadows roads will also be on the agenda on May 20.

The meeting was adjourned at 9:30 p.m. The Council next meets on May 20.

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1 thought on “Budget Deliberation Month Begins. Town Manager’s Budget Shorts Schools

  1. Re “The regional schools have asked for an additional $355,000 from Amherst for next year to avoid the elimination of as many as 20 student-facing positions…The proposed budget, however, does not include it.”
    Since January 2024, the Town has paid more than this (>$400,000) for design/project management for the Jones Library expansion project.
    The agreed upon cost for the library project in the Memorandum of Agreement between the Town and the Library for up to this point in the project (construction bids received) was $1.8 million, but expenses have already gone over by more than half a million dollars.
    When asked at the Cuppa’ Joe today (May 10) if he would work to recoup this extra half a million dollars from the Library, Bockelman basically said no.
    When asked –should the library expansion not go ahead– who would be responsible for paying the State back the $2.9 million in grant funds received so far (including interest), Bockelman said it would be the Town.
    More than $2.3 million of these grant funds have already been spent. Where will the money come from to pay back the state??
    If retaining teachers is more important to you than overspending on a now definitively-unaffordable library project, make your voices heard.

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