Amherst Town Council clears regional schools budget hike one-time funds and warning

Amherst Town Hall.

Amherst Town Hall. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 07-05-2024 7:39 PM

AMHERST — Even as members of the Town Council acknowledge frustrations over the size of the Amherst-Pelham Regional schools assessment increase, and the need to use one-time American Rescue Plan Act money to cover a portion of the obligation, a $35.27 million fiscal year 2025 budget for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools goes into effect on July 1.

After a brief discussion at the council’s June 24 meeting, councilors voted 12-0, with District 3 Councilor George Ryan abstaining, to adopt the $18.84 million assessment that represents a 6% increase over last year’s assessment and is $355,440 above a 4% increase guideline set by the Finance Committee — necessitating use of that amount in ARPA money.

In a related vote, councilors approved, by an identical 12-0 vote with Ryan abstaining, a special assessment formula requiring the 6% increase for all four towns in the region. Voters in Shutesbury, Pelham and Leverett previously approved both the assessments and assessment formula at their annual Town Meetings.

District 5 Councilor Bob Hegner, who chairs the Finance Committee, said there was little choice but for Amherst to approve the spending.

“It was sort of a fait accompli by the time we got to it,” Hegner said. “We’re not happy with this — we don’t like the fact 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 single one-time source to fill operational needs. But the schools are in crisis right now, and we’re trying to patch the life raft, if you will, and keep it afloat for another year.”

Hegner said the positive recommendation from the Finance Committee came due to school labor costs rising faster than revenues and charter schools costing the town more than $3 million annually, but also with a warning that federal Elementary and Secondary School Education Relief funds, which have supported the budget, are going away.

District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said the budget will cover only one year, but will allow new schools Superintendent E. Xiomara Herman to come in with some stability, despite the challenges and the state policies that are sucking resources out of the schools, including a reduction in Chapter 70 funding with declining enrollment and the money going toward charter schools. Schoen advocated for approving the revised assessment method as well.

“To not approve it would have a house crashing around our ears, which I don’t think we want to have happen,” Schoen said.

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The regional budget was adopted as part of a $97.3 million town budget for fiscal year 2025, which essentially maintains municipal staffing and programs, from police and fire to Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service and public works, while promoting climate change and racial equity objectives. Councilors had little comment about that spending, though District 4 Councilor Jennifer Taub suggested that the town’s sustainability department may need more staff in the future.

Ryan explained his decision to abstain as not being happy about the situation and not being able to send a message that this will make a bad situation even worse.

“The old adage is when you’re in a hole, you stop digging,” Ryan said. “But what we’re doing is digging the hole a little deeper.”

The regional schools budget, though, falls short of providing level services, with some cuts anticipated to student-facing positions at the middle and high schools.

What those cuts are, though, have not been specified yet, with the Regional School Committee asking Interim Superintendent Doug Slaughter, who will be returning to his role as finance director next week, for a detailed summary of positions that will be lost to discuss at a meeting in July.

Following the vote, councilors approved, in an 8-4 vote, a letter that will inform the Regional School Committee that it is unlikely the towns will be able to support the schools beyond a 2.5% increase in fiscal year 2026, and to also not build the fiscal year 2026 budget with the 6% increase as the base.

Drafted by At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, Hegner said the memo was difficult to write, since councilors don’t want to usurp the authority of the elected school committee members or to be confrontational. “But we need to lay out, very clearly, what the town can and cannot do fiscally in terms of sustainability over time,” Hegner said.

The letter states there have been enrollment declines at the regional schools of over 25% over a 15-year period, while special education staffing has risen 27% over the same time frame, despite a virtually unchanged special needs enrollment, and an 18% decrease in regular staffing.

Hanneke said the goal of the letter was to outline concerns that the approved financial orders don’t state and to “say we are here to support you, but we also have major concerns and that our funding and passage of the budget for FY25 does not alleviate any of those concerns.”

At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker said she worries about a section in the letter that critiques special education spending. District 2 Councilor Pat De Angelis agreed with these concerns, noting that even if the number of students is dropping, any one special needs student could need a great deal of teacher and paraprofessional support.

District 3 Councilor Heather Hala Lord said the letter feels punitive toward the schools.

But Council President Lynn Griesemer said it is critical to send. “This letter, I’m hoping, is seen as a reaching out and saying let’s work together, not we’re working against you,” Griesemer said.

It was also a long time in coming, Griesemer said, as the Town Council let school spending get to a crisis point, and she wants to avoid the “unpleasantness” seen in Northampton over its funding for schools.

“What I hope for Amherst is we can sit down and work this out together, for the benefit of all of our children,” Griesemer said.