Amherst regional school board reaches for $1M add to budget

Amherst Regional High School.

Amherst Regional High School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-24-2024 2:17 PM

AMHERST — A $35.75 million fiscal year 2025 budget for the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District that preserves 14 educator positions at the middle and high schools, but requires each of the four district towns to more than double their projected contributions, is being recommended by the Amherst Regional School Committee.

Bypassing financial guidance from each of the four towns and the original $34.81 million budget brought forward by interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter, the committee on Thursday voted 8-1 to adopt a budget nearly $1 million higher. The budget ensures no loss of student-facing positions and protects against the threat of increased class sizes, loss of consistent world language instruction at the middle school, and the elimination of restorative justice programs at both schools.

“The reason I chose to be on School Committee was because, as a grown up, I can help give kids who don’t have a voice, a voice,” said Regional School Committee Chairwoman Sarahbess Kenney, a Pelham representative. “I am willing to have the grown-ups in the town be mad at me, than to have the kids feel like we don’t care.”

The vote came two days after students, teachers and parents made an appeal to the committee to save teaching positions and the committee voted to create a negotiating committee to meet with Amherst College representatives about funding opportunities. The committee also delayed a decision Tuesday on whether to vote for a higher budget to bring to Amherst Town Council and the Town Meetings in Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham, or instead to pass the superintendent’s recommended budget and rely on $1 million in gifts and other money to prevent cuts.

The lone member to vote against increasing the budget on Thursday was Amherst representative Irv Rhodes, who said that “hope is not a plan” and that the district could face “Armageddon,” since he anticipates the higher budget will be rejected by both Amherst Town Council and voters in the smaller communities.

“This budget is DOA — dead on arrival — in Amherst, and the other towns,” Rhodes said, adding that there is a frightening prospect of not having a budget on July 1. That would lead to a state-mandated, month-by-month “1/12th budget,” based on the spending in fiscal year 2024, and remain in effect until a new operating budget is passed.

Amherst representative Bridget Hynes said she couldn’t vote for a budget that would depend on a gift from the communities or support from Amherst College.

“Hope is not what we’re doing,” Hynes said. “What we’re doing is taking up the responsibility we have.”

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While supporting the plan, Amherst representative Sarah Marshall said she is concerned about the 1/12th budget possibility and creating a challenging situation for a new superintendent, who is expected to be in place by July 1.

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao said fighting for funding for the schools would demonstrate a commitment to the superintendent.

“We have to try, we can’t not try,” Shiao said.

Leverett representative Tilman Wolf said terrible things will happen to the schools if more positions are cut, observing the revised budget is already $747,896 below providing level services. “We have to make it clear to the towns that this is all we can do to maintain some level of quality in the schools,” Wolf said.

The budget would still eliminate just over two central office administrators, two custodial staff members and one middle school clerical staff member.

In addition to supporting the higher budget, the committee also endorsed a revised assessment method for calculating what each town will be pay in fiscal year 2025. That is based on a five-year average of minimum contributions combined with a per-pupil spending method, with no assessment going up or down by more than 8.2%. That was also adopted by an 8-1 vote.

To be enacted, the budget must be passed by three of the four communities, with votes to be taken by the Amherst Town Council and voters at Town Meetings in Leverett and Shutesbury, with their sessions both scheduled for April 27, and Pelham, which meets on May 11. The assessment formula needs to be adopted by all four towns.

Under the plan, all four communities would see the increases in their assessments more than double from initial projections, though Shutesbury’s assessment increase would be more than three times as high.

Combined, the four towns are contributing $23.67 million toward the budget, which is also funded through state aid and various other sources. That combined assessment is $1.79 million above the $21.88 million assessment this year, and $941,975 higher than the $22.73 million assessment recommended by officials in the four towns.

To meet the higher budget, for Amherst the assessment would be $19.23 million, $1.46 million more than this year’s $17.77 million assessment, and $746,400 above guidance; for Pelham, the assessment would be $1.09 million, $82,441 more than this year’s $1.01 million assessment, and $42,226 above guidance; for Leverett, the assessment would be $1.67 million, $126,361 more than this year’s $1.54 million assessment, and $64,721 above guidance; and for Shutesbury, the assessment would be $1.69 million, $127,959 more than this years’s $1.56 million assessment, or $88,267 above guidance.

Wolf said the committee shouldn’t discuss the possibility of failure, because that’s not an acceptable outcome. “It makes no sense to put a path forward where any town can get out of this,” Wolf said.

If the towns don’t support the budget, then the committee and district leaders will understand that the same level of academics and services can’t be provided, Wolf said. “But I don’t think it should be us making that decision, and basically ruin something good that we have,” he said.

Even with the higher budget, the schools still would be losing custodial staff, meaning that one fewer custodian working at the middle school and one fewer at the high school, with six custodians remaining in both buildings.

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