School Budgets Remain Unsettled


Photo: Art Keene

Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Finance Committee, May 14, 2024

This meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded. It can be viewed here.

Bob Hegner (Chair, District 5), Cathy Schoen (District 1), Mandi Jo Hanneke, Andy Steinberg, and Ellisha Walker (at large)

Regional School Committee: Sarabess Kenney (Chair), Bridget Hynes

Staff: Doug Slaughter (Interim School Superintendent), Athena O’Keeffe (Clerk of the Council)

How Much Will Amherst Owe for the Regional School Budget?
Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury recently approved a six percent increase in their contributions to the FY25 regional school budget at their annual town meetings. Amherst’s Town Manager Paul Bockelman’s budget submitted on May 1 recommended only a four percent increase over FY 2024. According to the regional agreement, only three of the four towns need to agree to a budget amount, but all four must agree to the assessment method, which determines the portion of the budget that each town must pay. The Amherst-Pelham Regional School district uses a non-statutory method of assessment, based on a combination of the five-year average enrollment and property values for each town. The statutory method is based on property values and taxes.

Interim School Superintendent Doug Slaughter said that “Amherst still has a sort of full veto,” because if it rejects the assessment method, the schools will not have a budget. However, he continued, if Amherst approves the assessment method that has been in place for several years, it would be compelled to increase the regional school budget by six percent. 

As to questions raised about the details of a six percent increase in the budget, Slaughter was vague in his replies. He stated that he is working with “educational professionals” at the schools to put the additional money into uses that will have the most impact for students. He did not say how much of the increased funding would go to the middle school and how much to the high school or what positions are likely to be cut.

With the final $500,000 of the COVID-19 ESSER funds from the federal government being expended in next year’s budget, the schools will face a larger deficit in coming years, Slaughter said. He stated that there will need to be a “deep and long” look at the program of studies, the staffing model, and utilization of buildings to reconcile the gap between revenue and expenses. He said that expenses rise about four percent per year, but revenue increases only 2.23%, and state funding through Chapter 70 is fairly flat. Even though he admitted it is hard to offer less than we did in the past, the schools need to determine the number of students necessary to sustain each program and be “thoughtful about the total number of students and the number we can attract via school choice.”

In addition to the budget being buoyed by ESSER funds, Community Responders for Equity, Service, and Safety (CRESS) responders have been supporting the middle school during lunch and arrivals, due to a staff shortage at the school. Slaughter did not expect to need that support next year.

The DPW also supports the schools by maintaining the playing fields, an arrangement that may need to be evaluated when, and if, the proposed new track and field at the high school come to fruition. 

Slaughter was hopeful that a bill passed by the State Senate to aid rural districts would add about $90,000 to the budget. Regarding “excess funds and deficiency funds” (EMD), he said that the schools are allowed to have a five percent budget surplus at the end of the year, but must return any amount more than that to the towns, as was done in 2022—or, he said, the schools could spend the excess. 

Regional School Committee (RSC) members in attendance outlined the efforts to ease future budget shortfalls. Deb Leonard and Sarah Marshall noted contacts with several state lawmakers to advocate for rural schools. The RSC is also speaking to Amherst College about an agreement to contribute to public schools. Bridget Hynes said the school committee planned to form a budget subcommittee to work year-round on budget matters, because “January to April is not long enough.”

Nonvoting Finance Committee member Bernie Kubiac noted that the regional schools spend 20% more per pupil, and the elementaru schools 30% more than neighboring districts. He said that a former town councilor asserted that Amherst elementary schools cost as much as Bement (a private middle school in Deerfield). RSC members strongly disagreed with this comparison. Marshall noted that public schools must take all students, regardless of their needs and must offer a range of programs. Also, public school teachers must be credentialled and unionized.

Hynes refuted an oft repeated statement that, despite declining enrollment, teaching staff has increased. She said that in 2020-2021, there were 1,283 students in the regional schools and 115.5 teachers. In 2022-2023, there were 1,210 students and 109 teachers. The 11.4 students per teacher is slightly less than the state average of 11.9. Slaughter said that most of the 23 teachers hired over the past two years were to replace those who left. Hynes said that a middle school guidance counselor, restorative justice coordinators at both schools, four middle school language teachers, an adjustment counselor, and high school AP Biology, and AP math teachers were notified that their positions may not be renewed if the budget is not increased for the coming year. She noted that because the town got rid of its trash truck, the school district has to pay the equivalent of a teacher’s salary for trash disposal—an expense shifted from the town to the schools.

No Clear Details on How Sixth Grade Move to the Middle School Will Affect Budget
With Amherst sixth graders moving to the middle school in the fall of 2026, Finance Committee members asked if costs could be shared with the middle school by having sixth graders take some classes with middle school staff. Slaughter said cost savings would be limited because the sixth graders would still be in the Amherst Elementary school district, not the regional district, and the Amherst schools would need to rent the space, providing some revenue to the regional district.

Mandi Jo Hanneke asked about whether the elementary schools’ Caminantes dual language program would be continued when the sixth graders were in the middle school or if those students would need to go two to three years before receiving world language instruction in the high school. She also wanted to know if adding the sixth graders would prohibit the possibility of closing the middle school and make the high school a grades 7 to 12 school. Slaughter said that the details of the sixth-grade move are still being worked out.

If No Agreement Between the Towns Is Reached, State Will Determine Funding Formula
Slaughter said that if the four towns in the region cannot come to an agreement on the budget before July, the state would assess each town according to the statutory method based on the previous year’s budget until an agreement was reached. If there was no agreement within six months, the statutory assessment would apply to the full fiscal year.

In public comment, Toni Cunningham pointed out that the $355,000 additional funding requested of Amherst (i.e. the amount equivalent to a six percent increase) was less than the amount the town has spent on the Jones Library expansion project since January alone, and far less than the $1.3 million budgeted for the project debt for FY25.

The elementary school budget had less of a shortfall than at the region, Slaughter noted. Nevertheless, Finance Committee member Andy Steinberg emphasized the ending of ESSER funds and suggested cooperating with other districts and revisiting the idea of a K-12 district with the other towns in the region. Slaughter stated that the state partially reimburses the cost of providing services to students with intensive special needs but only after the district has spent four times the average per pupil expense (about $50,000/pupil). But special needs are still a major expense. Councilor Cathy Schoen noted that the elementary schools are paying $1.6 million for students to attend charter schools, and that the district does not seem to be breaking even on school choice students. She and Hanneke asked for a multi-year plan for the elementary school budget.

It was not clear when the Finance Committee would make its recommendations on the school budgets to the full council. The committee next meets on Friday, May 17 at 10:30 to discuss the budgets for CRESS and the fire department.

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