Preliminary budget for Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools shows $1.9M gap

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 12-26-2023 11:05 AM

AMHERST — Various adjustments and cost savings totaling $1.9 million may be necessary before a fiscal year 2025 operating budget for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools can be adopted by the four member towns, according to school officials.

“It is going to be a really difficult budget season,” said Shannon Bernaccia, interim director of finance for the school district, during Saturday’s Four Towns Meeting, which brought together elected and appointed officials from Shutesbury, Leverett, Pelham and Amherst.

While the presentation was only a preliminary look at the budget that would be in place for July 1, 2024, Bernaccia explained that to maintain the current level of services the district needs a $36.5 million budget, up 8.8%, or $2.84 million, from the current year’s $33.7 million budget.

But the revenues for next year’s spending plan, coming from various sources, are likely to only come to $34.6 million, falling well short of what is needed to keep all programs and staff intact. Those revenues include $22.5 million in assessments to be paid by each of the four towns, $9.8 million in state aid for schools, and various reimbursements, such as for transportation and charter schools.

Earlier this year, to balance the current year’s budget, 14.44 full-time equivalent positions were eliminated.

Bernaccia said special education needs remaining high, including mental health services to address student needs, with a 16.5% increase projected, while health insurance is going up by 12% and school liability insurance is rising by 15% to 20%. The budget is even affected by cost to operate the facilities, such as trash removal rising by 10%.

One hope, Bernaccia said, is for reimbursement for special education costs to be substantial, which would allow the district to hold some the remaining federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money back for future use. In the current year’s budget, about $1 million in ESSER funds were used to balance spending.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter said the “first take” and broad brush on the budget will be followed by more specifics, to be presented to the Regional School Committee in late January, with a second meeting bringing together the four towns in February, and then a regional committee vote in March, in time for the Amherst Town Council and Town Meetings in the three other towns to approve or reject the assessments.

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Those assessments are based on a formula that is based on each town’s income and taxable property, and a community’s enrollment.

Based on preliminary guidance that is set by Amherst, as the largest community, its assessment can only go up by 3%. That means its assessment would be $18.3 million, up $533,158 from this year’s $17.7 million assessment.

School leaders are continuing to use a so-called guardrail system that prevents any town’s assessment from going up by more than 4%.

Both Pelham and Leverett would hit this 4%, with Pelham’s assessment going up to $1.05 million, or $40,215, from $1.01 million, and Leverett’s rising to $1.6 million, or $61,640, from $1.54 million. Shutesbury would only see a 1.37%, or $21.339 increase, in its assessment, to $1.58 million, from $1.56 million.

The Four Towns Meeting also presented several capital projects totaling $477,000 that the district will be undertaking, with the largest being $100,000 for theater lighting at the middle school and paving a parking lot at that building.

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