Council Passes Regional School Budget With Reservations and Warnings


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Report on the Meeting of the Amherst Town Council, June 24, 2024

This meeting was held in hybrid form 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), George Ryan and Hala Lord (District 3), Pam Rooney and Jennifer Taub (District 4), Ana Devlin Gauthier and Bob Hegner (District 5). Devlin Gauthier was present only briefly on Zoom

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

FY 2025 Budget Passes
One week after the Town Council defeated a motion to avoid spending another $550,700 on the Jones Library project, already $7 million over budget, several of the councilors who passionately supported the library were less enthusiastic about the regional schools. While the council eventually approved the regional school budget by a vote of 11-0-1,  at a six percent increase, or $355,000 over the FY24 level, they made it clear that the schools should expect considerably less in FY26.

The Regional School Committee had originally requested an 8% increase which would have been sufficient to level-fund all student-facing positions in the district, instead of the 4% recommended by the Town Manager. The compromise 6% budget will result in the loss of seven full-time equivalent (FTE) teachers including four part-time language teachers (essentially gutting the middle school language program), two restorative justice (RJ) coordinators (resulting in the elimination of RJ at both the high school and middle school), other counselors, and an AP math and AP science teacher, in addition to numerous other losses.

Given that the other three towns in the district had previously approved the 6%, an affirmative vote from Amherst was not needed to pass the regional budget. However, all four towns must agree on the assessment method that determines each town’s share. If Amherst were to reject the assessment method used for the past years, which is based on a combination of both current and five-year average enrollments, the state’s statutory method would be used and the FY24 budget would continue to be applied on a month-to-month basis until an agreement could be reached by all four towns on the assessment method. The council’s vote included an affirmation of the existing assessment method.

George Ryan (District 3) was the lone abstention on the vote and expressed his dissatisfaction,  saying, “The message we’re sending here is somewhat confusing. We’re going to grant a 6% increase, when the message really should be 4%. We can see what’s coming. I assume that the school committee can see what’s coming, but the old adage is: when you’re in a hole, the first thing you do is stop digging. But we’re digging a hole a little bit deeper.” 

Finance Committee Chair Bob Hegner (District 5) replied, “The other three towns did vote for this 6% increase before we had a chance to vote on it, so it was a sort of fait accompli. We’re not happy with this. We don’t like the fact that we’re using ARPA funds to plug the gap. We don’t like the idea that we’re violating our own guidelines by using a one-time source of funding to fill operational needs. But the schools are in crisis and we’re trying to patch the life raft and keep it afloat for another year.”

Cathy Schoen (District 1)  said, “The school system has been without a superintendent. The new superintendent is coming in with incredible challenges facing her. And this allows us to smooth it over. So, I think it’s the smart thing to do. Also, I want to say this is not necessarily of the schools’ making by themselves. Two policies are sucking resources out of our school system: the first is the way chapter 70 works with state money paying for a smaller share of the school budget than it used to, and the second is the way the charter school formula works. Every year we send $20,000 per student to charter schools. If they go to Pelham Elementary school, we send $5,000.”

Letter to School Committee Warns No Additional Money for Coming Year
Mandi Jo Hanneke (at large) drafted a letter to the regional school committee (RSC) on behalf of the Town Council to let them know that the Finance Committee was concerned about the 6% budget increase this year and wanted the RSC to develop future budgets that are sustainable over time. Hegner said, “This letter was very difficult to write, because we don’t want to come across as usurping the authority of the school committee. We don’t want to be confrontational, but we need to lay out very clearly what the town can and cannot do fiscally.”

Ryan offered strong support for the letter, saying, “I think it’s the right thing to do.” 

Ellisha Walker (at large), who sits on the Finance Committee, however, expressed some concerns. She stated, “I was in favor of sending communication to the RSC, because I believe it’s extremely important for us to have ongoing communication and dialog about what is going to happen for the future—how we can best support them. But when I read this, it didn’t feel as though we were being supportive or as though we were asking for something specific. I feel like it’s just saying, ‘we are doing this now and we’re not going to do it again’.” She said she was especially concerned about singling out increasing special education expenses while total enrollments are decreasing. She noted that Hanneke said that the letter came from one councilor’s concern about the school budget, and she wanted to gauge the support of other councilors. 

Pat DeAngelis (District 2) stated that, although the number of special education students has slightly decreased, their needs vary greatly, so that the staffing cannot be based on enrollment alone. 

Hala Lord (District 3) agreed with Walker. She said, “I’m just having a feeling around this letter. In the last meeting, it seemed like there were some councilors that distrust our elected officials, and I’m trying to understand that. This letter feels a little punitive to me. I would love a letter that said ‘Let’s set a date really soon, so we can sit together and dialogue about the things written’.”

Lynn Griesemer (District 2) expressed her support for the letter and the inclusion of special education funding. “I will say it out loud,” she said, “The increase in special education staffing while the number of students enrolled with disabilities has remained essentially unchanged is part of the structural problem that needs to be discussed. This is a letter that’s been long in coming. This is the letter that we’ve needed for probably the last three or four years, and we let it get to a crisis point.”

Hanneke pointed out that the letter does ask for a meeting between the council and the RSC by August 1, so as not to wait until the Four Towns Meeting in December to begin talking about the budget. 

Schoen said she wanted to go back and read the letter for tone. She also stated that charter schools, such as the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion School (PVCIS) do not take severely disabled students, so the students that the Amherst schools are losing are not the special needs population. “We are losing about 200 others,” she said, “and the dynamic has been really crippling. We’re cutting down on the choice of languages, the music program, and other kinds of programs.” 

Hanneke strongly objected to the statement that PVCIS does not take students with disabilities, since it uses a lottery to fill its enrollment. 

The council voted 8-4 to send the Finance Committee letter to the RSC and the Select Boards of the other three towns in the region. Walker, Schoen, Lord, and Jennifer Taub (District 4) voted no. Ana Devlin Gauthier (District 5) was absent.

Ryan Questions Communication System in Public Safety Budget
The FY25 Capital Improvement Budget includes $1.8 million for a new public safety radio system and a chiller replacement for the police station. Ryan questioned why the communication system was not anticipated in the five-year plan. He asked, “How can you do a five-year plan if something like this suddenly comes to you out of the blue?” 

Hanneke defended the expenditure, saying, “Our public safety officials cannot operate if they do not have a functioning radio system. The radio system they have is over 20 years old and is barely functional.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman admitted that the system should have been in last year’s plan. “I think we recognize that [the process broke down],” he said. “The public safety folks were just not in touch with our finance folks. My apologies to the council for that.” 

Hegner agreed and stated, “I think we have made it very clear going forward that we don’t want surprises like this, that they’re not acceptable. People just screwed up on this one. But this is something that we can’t say no to.”

The Capital budget passed 11-0-1 with Walker abstaining and Devlin Gauthier absent.

Councilors Hear Preliminary Plans for War Memorial Pool Area
Assistant Superintendent of Public Works Amy Rusiecki presented initial plans for replacing the War Memorial pool bathhouse. Bockelman noted that the 1953 bathhouse is beyond its useful life. There are gaps in the foundation, rusted pipes, cracked walls, and missing roof shingles. 

Rusiecki said the DPW received $750,000 in Community Preservation Act funds for planning for the recreation area. Initial plans are to relocate the bathhouse to the east of the pool and make it available to those using the high school fields for eight months a year, not only for the two months that the pool is open. Long term, there are plans to revitalize the entire area, possibly with a splash pad, playground, and picnic area. The estimated cost for the bathhouse alone, however, is $4 million, which will require the department to go back to CPA for additional funds.

Bockelman asked if the town really needed two outdoor pools. 

The War Memorial pool is used by the summer day camps. If only the Mill River pool was available, campers would need to be bussed there for swimming. Walker answered that she feels that the town does need two outdoor pools, noting that during the previous week’s heat wave, the Mill River pool was at capacity for five hours, so there were many kids playing in the park waiting to be admitted to the pool. She also said that the Groff Park splash pad is also often overcrowded.

Hanneke noted that the design places the new bathhouse where the basketball courts are, and thought that, with the Kendrick Park playground two blocks away, the War Memorial area should offer more activities for teens and adults. 

Walker suggested that the town hear from local youth as to what activities they want in the area. She also suggested that it be a multigenerational space, with activities for a variety of ages. Bockelman indicated that when the plans are more developed in a year or two, the town will apply for a PARC grant to fund the second phase of development.

Town Manager Announces that He Has Signed the Architect Contract for Jones Expansion Rebid
In his Town Manager report, Bockelman told the council that he has signed the $550,700 extension to the Finegold Alexander Architect contract to redesign parts of the Jones expansion project to reflect the cuts to the design to which the Jones Library Trustees agreed. The money for the contract will come from the library’s endowment, and will be paid back to the endowment by fundraising if the project goes forward. Bockelman also signed an amendment to the Memorandum of Agreement between the town and the trustees that reflects this plan

Charter Review Committee Approved
The council unanimously approved the nine residents recommended by the Governance, Legislation, and Outreach Committee for appointment to the Charter Review Committee. They are: Andy Churchill, Meg Gage, Julian Hynes, Bernie Kubiak, Raphael Rogers, Erika Mijlin, Ken LeBlond, Dan Muscat, and Marcus Smith.

Still No Ranked Choice Voting
In public comment, Andy Anderson said that Amherst’s petition for special legislation to approve rank choice voting for local elections was sent for study by the state legislature, and will not be acted upon during this legislative session. Anderson urged the council to take a different tack by adopting a rank choice voting bylaw or including it in the charter. He noted that Easthampton and Cambridge have had rank choice voting for years.

Support Voiced for Debora Ferreira
In public comment, Georgia Malcolm decried Bockelman’s decision to not reappoint Debora Ferreira to the Community Safety and Social Justice Committee (LINK). Lord and Walker also expressed their support for Ferreira and her contributions to the community.  Ferreira is currently co-chair of the committee.

The next council meeting is scheduled for July 15.

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1 thought on “Council Passes Regional School Budget With Reservations and Warnings

  1. “The FY25 Capital Improvement Budget includes $1.8 million for a new public safety radio system and a chiller replacement for the police station.”

    To clarify, it is 1.9 million for the radio system which is spread across 2 years (900,000 in borrowing) this year and 1,000,000 in cash capital next years. The APD chiller is not included in this number and has an additional 900,000 appropriation after an original 400,000 appropriation was not enough, so it will cost 1.3 million in total and over 2 years. The chiller was included in the plan and was done as the process should be done, it also will be a heat pump system with lower energy use.

    This is why I fully support the chiller appropriation, however the radio appropriation was deeply concerning as it sets a precedent that officials can skirt around the process. The money for this system was put in at the last minute, and directly competes with road paving funds.

    Please tell me if we postponed it a year and did some research the town could find a radio system for far cheaper than 1.9 million and put the other money into roads or schools. Shutesbury runs their radio system for $1,900 per year. They are a much smaller town, but even if we extrapolate for population (including students) we get a cost around 80,000 not 1.9 million. I think this request should have been more throughly examined to be made significantly less expensive.

    This brings up an interesting comparison:

    The schools told the town what their needs were somewhat late in the process and the council compromised for half of their request (though not ongoing as requested) and then sent a letter demanding it not happen again. I would love if a town councilor or Finance Committee member could explain to me why the same was not done with the radio system request which also came in late. The system is currently functioning well as it is (I listen to the radios regularly). This money is being spent for the potential that if the system fails parts will not be available so could have been done more planfully. The double standard and difference in tone toward different funding areas is concerning. If we are to be spendthrift in one, we should be in all.

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