School Committee Rejects Proposal for Budget Oversight Committee


Amherst Regional School Committee meeting, May 28, 2024. Photo: YouTube/Amherst Media

Report on the Meeting of the Regional School Committee, May 28, 20204

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

Multimember School Budget Stabilization Committee Motion Rejected
The Regional School Committee (RSC) defeated by a 2-7 vote, a motion to create a committee of town and school representatives to oversee the development of a budget for the Amherst and regional schools. Irv Rhodes (Amherst) and Tilman Wolf (Leverett) voted in favor of the motion. 

Responding to concerns about the ability of regional schools to remain within the budget guidelines set by the member towns in recent years, Regional School Committee member Irv Rhodes proposed the formation of a budget stabilization committee co-chaired by the Amherst Town Manager and the School Superintendent to develop a long and short-term fiscal stability plan for the schools. The proposed committee would be composed of town councilors, school committee members, and educators. According to the motion, the committee’s charge would be to “recommend a plan that preserves the excellent education we provide to our children within our limited financial resources.” 

A similar 17-member committee is suggested in a draft memo from Town Manager Paul Bockelman and Town Council President Lynn Griesemer, which will presumably be presented at an upcoming town council meeting (read the proposed charge for that committee here). 

In promoting his proposal, Rhodes said that a similar committee was proposed by former Amherst Finance Director Sean Mangano, but was not implemented due to Mangano’s departure. Rhodes said that “we need to lead this conversation, not be led,” to prepare for a challenging budget process, which begins in September. 

Jennifer Shiao (Amherst) said she was strongly opposed to the proposed committee. She said that the state specifies that the school superintendent develop a budget that the school committee approves, and she felt it was extremely inappropriate for town councilors, town managers and members from other towns to take on this function. She added that she agrees that the schools need a long-term financial plan, but that such a plan should be developed by a subcommittee of the school committee.

Deb Leonard (Amherst) agreed that the schools need to communicate to the towns that they take the fiscal challenges seriously, but did not like the idea of a “town-heavy committee.” She suggested that, if the schools need budgetary guidance that it come from an independent source, such as the Hampshire Educational Collaborative. She said she was not willing to cede this aspect of the school committee’s charge to the town. Sarah Marshall  (Chair, Amherst) agreed, but thought that the school committee should have more input into the budgetary process, not just see the budget draft when it is completed in the spring. She also stated, “We don’t want to do this the month before the new superintendent arrives. We should talk to her first about her plans for the budget process.”

Although Rhodes noted that his proposed committee would not be involved in curriculum and staffing, Shiao mentioned the not-yet-finalized memo regarding forming the committee from Bockelman, which states, “The group will look at funding levels, operational efficiencies, facility planning, academic programing, and other areas that impact the fiscal sustainability of the schools both in the coming year and beyond.” She asked, “What if the committee decides we have too many art teachers and need to get rid of one?” RSC Chair Sarabess Kenny (Pelham) also stressed the need to have conversations about the budget with the towns, but she said she doesn’t want others dictating programming. 

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard also strenuously objected to the proposed committee. She felt that the proposal came from a “disrespectful space,” implying that the school committee can’t handle its own finances. She noted that every year the schools are underfunded in terms of the parameters presented by the Amherst Town Manager. “This year, we finally said, ‘We actually need to keep our teachers and programs that are essential.’ In their eyes, we sprung it on them at the last minute, but that is not the case,” she said. “The real problem is that funding for schools across the state and across the country is not keeping up, placing more of the burden on the towns. That is not the school committee’s fault.”  She advocated for better communication with the towns, but not through a parallel committee. 

Leonard recalled that, at the Four Towns Meeting in April, an Amherst representative stated, “Maybe we should make the cuts and show the state what it looks like.” At the time, she thought, “The state knows what it looks like. So, we’re just supposed to throw our kids under the bus for a number of years and say, ‘See, we told you so.’ No!” She said she welcomes the opportunity to communicate with town officials, but she said she can’t put that comment out of her mind and can’t approve of the proposed committee when facing that kind of attitude. 

Bridget Hynes reported that she felt the Amherst Finance Committee meeting earlier that day was “hostile” toward the schools. She thought  that the councilors “put many things under a microscope” for the schools, but not for the other departments. She noted that all town departments are facing budget stress, but the Amherst Police Department (APD) is spending $1.6 million for a new communication system and pays for much overtime for officers, yet the APD request for a six percent increase over the previous year was recommended with minimal questioning. She also disputed Rhodes’ allegation that the school committee was not being collaborative in the budget discussion. She said she has attended 16 meetings on the budget since January.

Wolf  said he thought Rhodes’ proposal was a chance for the proposed committee to advocate for the schools, not to make decisions about the budget and program. Rhodes summarized, “We can’t say we don’t want you involved in our finances on one hand, and on the other hand, give us more money.” He pointed out that the Town Council must approve the school budget, so “We need cooperation and collaboration.”

The other members of the RSC were not persuaded. The motion was defeated 2-7, with only Rhodes and Wolf voting yes.

Public Comment Supports RSC Vote
Resident Vincent O’Connell called the draft memo from the Town Manager “racist and misogynist” in stripping the new school superintendent, who is a Black woman, of one of her primary duties before she even starts her job. 

Parent Kathleen Mitchell said that there is significant distrust that some town councilors and some members of the Finance Committee have the best interest of students at heart, and the timing of the Town Manager’s memo suggests that “we will give you your six percent budget increase if you cede this control to us.”

Regional school staff member Georgia Malcolm praised the RSC for standing up for the schools. “You did not make this budget problem; it’s been going on for decades,” she said. She said she was confident that new School Superintendent E. Xiomara Herman will do fine. “She is a strong woman,” Malcolm concluded. Toni Cunningham noted that Interim Superintendent Doug Slaughter and former Superintendent Mike Morris asked for budget increases for the schools for many years, but it was never suggested that the town form a committee to oversee the process until a Black woman was hired as superintendent.

In her report on the Town Council Finance Committee meeting on May 28, Hynes said that the committee seemed ready to recommend the six percent budget increase, but would treat it as a “gift,” not an amount that would be added to the base considered in future years. The Town Council is expected to vote on the FY 2025 budget on June 17.

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3 thoughts on “School Committee Rejects Proposal for Budget Oversight Committee

  1. Anna Heard was correct when she said the [Paul Bockelman/Lynn Griesemer] proposal came from a “disrespectful space.” Some Councilors have expressed hostile behavior toward the School Committee members of late.
    I said in my public comment, “I’ve been following school budgets closely for the past eight years. In that time, I watched former Superintendent Michael Morris, and Finance Director and current interim Superintendent Doug Slaughter lead the district toward this fiscal cliff, yet at no time did Paul or the Council step in and try to usurp their power. But now that a Black woman is about to take the helm, they are interjecting with this appalling action. It is highly inappropriate.”
    Dr. Herman starts in a month. Let her get settled into the role and see what ideas she has for improving the budget process and developing a sustainable fiscal plan, working with the School Committee and its Budget Sub-Committee. The Town Manager and Councilors can assist but it is not their place to run or co-lead an initiative focused on school budgets and academic programming.
    The irony that the people pushing for this School Fiscal Sustainability Working Group are the same people leading the Town to a fiscal cliff for the library project is not lost on me.

  2. The suggestion for a Town-Schools study group to address the pending “fiscal cliff” and long-term fiscal health of the schools was originally proposed in February-March 2023. It was Paul Bockelman, Sean Mangano (Town finance director at the time), Mike Morris, and Doug Slaughter who originally discussed it and this was shared with the School Committees in public meetings at that time. The School Committee also asked for updates about the formation of this group at several subsequent public meetings that spring.

    The suggestion arose amidst public discussions about the Regional schools budgets when Morris and Slaughter told the Regional SC that, absent a significant change in the 4 towns’ funding, substantial changes would need to be made to programs and structure in the Regional schools, and that the schools would need to be “very different” than current. (Watch the FY24 budget presentations and RSC budget vote in March 2023 to hear the discussion.)

    The suggestion to form a town/schools budget committee is not a new one and planning was initiated long before the former superintendent (and town finance director) left and the new superintendent was hired.

  3. There is an obvious hypocrisy in the Griesemer-Bockelman proposal to implement Town financial supervision over the public schools, while they give the Jones Library Trustees free rein to make spending request after spending request for the Jones Library renovation-expansion. Is the Amherst College professor who has guided the library building project to a $17 million budget overrun worthy of more deference than the incoming school superintendent?

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