Town manager’s plan shorts Amherst Regional Schools’ budget

Amherst Town Hall.

Amherst Town Hall. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2024 9:24 PM

AMHERST — A $97.3 million town budget for fiscal year 2025, maintaining municipal staffing and programs and promoting climate change and racial equity objectives, is being proposed by Town Manager Paul Bockelman, even as concerns are being raised that the budget fails to provide the requested spending plan from the regional schools.

At Monday’s Town Council meeting, the first time residents had an opportunity to comment on the proposed budget released May 1, many focused on the $18.48 million appropriation for the regional schools, a $710,881, or 4% increase, over this year’s $17.77 million assessment. While that meets the guidelines provided by councilors, it falls $355,440 short of the 6% increase recommended by the Regional School Committee for a budget that minimizes staff reductions.

“My job in presenting the budget is to maintain our strong financial position as a town, and that means we have a balanced budget that is funded by recurring revenue,” Bockelman said, adding that fiscal year 2025 is a challenging budget year with multiple requests for more than the town can afford.

The budget includes 4% increases for municipal operations, at $28.36 million; the town’s annual contribution to Jones Library, at $2.3 million; and the elementary schools, at $26.97 million, with 10.5% of the overall tax levy going for capital needs, or $7.91 million.

The budget calls for a 3.6%, or $3.39 million, increase over this year’s $93.9 million, a typical annual increase, said Sandy Pooler, the town’s former finance director who is serving as a paid consultant.

Pooler said the only increase in staffing is two positions for inspections, at a cost of $145,000, for the town’s new residential rental property inspection program.

“It is paid for by new fees that the council voted for, but also, while doing that, still remains within the 4% overall town budget increase,” Pooler said.

Regional schools budget

The budget discussion came after a number of people appealed for a 6% regional school budget increase, which has already been adopted by Town Meetings in Leverett and Shutesbury, and will be discussed at Pelham’s Town Meeting on Saturday.

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For Bockelman, developing a fiscal stability plan for the regional schools is the biggest priority. He expressed a need for serious and sustained conversations with school and finance officials, saying that a structural deficit has been created because of federal Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief money applied to the budget.

“We can’t look at this as just a one-time solution. They have a structural deficit because a big chunk of their budget is funded by ESSER money, which goes away next year,” Bockelman said. “It’s really going to impact our operations within a year or two, so it’s very serious.”

That conversation about fiscal stability, he said, “has to happen with our school district, with our union reps, with the other towns, with the council,” Bockelman said.

A formal hearing on the budget is May 21.

Councilors said they are ready to find money to support the regional schools request.

“Recognizing that we also have to look at the shortfall in the years ahead, I do hope we can find the resources to meet the request from the School Committee for the budget at 6%, and can find the $355,000,” District 4 Councilor Jennifer Taub said.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said, though, that the situation is only going to get worse and the deficit could get “out of control” in future years, based on a financial outlook created by Pooler.

“We don’t have a choice,” Griesemer said. “We all have to sit down together and say what do we want education to look like in Amherst, and how are we going to make it happen?”

With people holding signs in support of the schools and occasionally shouting out, parents, students and staff filled the Town Room.

High school senior Amrita Rutter, a co-hub lead for Amherst Sunrise, said that up to a $1.8 million cut from level-services school spending would be devastating.

“I can see it in my teachers’ eyes. I can hear it in the halls as friends talk of their families moving from the district if the budget passes,” Rutter said.

“It boggles my mind to see our schools as deprioritized as they are,” Rutter said.

“All I really have to say is please vote in favor of the 6% increase for the schools,” said 10th grader Delaney Chang.

“I’ve met the incoming superintendent, and she’s amazing, and Dr. (Ericilda) Herman can turn the school around ... I want you to give her a budget that she can do that with,” said Rudy Cassidy, who teaches calculus at the high school. Cassidy, a Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching award winner, who is slated to be laid off as part of the cuts necessitated by the 6% budget.

“I understand that our schools are demographically getting smaller, and I ask that we all look at this problem from a systemic point, and that we stop slashing things just to meet a budget,” said Nina Mankin, a parent from North Amherst.

Kathleen Mitchell, a parent from South Amherst, said she is concerned that there has been condescending and unsympathetic rhetoric from members of the Town Council regarding school spending.

“I hope you will reconsider the increase allotted to our school and work in partnership with all of us to show our kids that they matter,” Mitchell said.

Climate change,other budget items

Highlights of the municipal budget for confronting climate change include a separate department for sustainability, which used to be embedded in community development: $250,000 for energy efficiency and sustainability improvements in the capital plan and the launch of the residential heat pump incentive program.

On racial equity, the budget preserves staffing for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office, anticipates development of the Residential Oversight Board for police and continued community visioning sessions for racial equity and social justice.

The budget includes $1.3 million for roads and sidewalks and $500,000 for municipal building roofs.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.