Amherst’s elementary schools facing $500K in cuts

DOUGLAS SLAUGHTER

DOUGLAS SLAUGHTER

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter alerted the Amherst School Committee at it most recent meeting that the town’s elementary schools will have difficulty maintaining level services in next year’s budge

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter alerted the Amherst School Committee at it most recent meeting that the town’s elementary schools will have difficulty maintaining level services in next year’s budge STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 01-25-2024 10:55 AM

AMHERST — More than $500,000 in cuts and other adjustments to the fiscal year 2025 spending plan for Amherst’s elementary schools may be needed, according to preliminary projections presented to the Amherst School Committee last Thursday.

The potential reductions come as the schools need an estimated $27.2 million budget to keep existing services intact, up $1.28 million, or 4.9% over this year’s $25.9 million budget. But the schools have been directed by the Town Council to limit the budget increase to 3%, or $26.7 million, meaning the level services budget calls for spending $503,972 more than that.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter said numbers will be refined in the coming weeks as the district tries to find efficiencies before a Feb. 13 public hearing on the budget. “We’ve got to have more offsets than adds because we’ve got a shortfall of half a million dollars,” Slaughter said.

Being early in the process, Slaughter said more resources may come available, such as through the state budget or by making appeals to the Budget Coordinating Group, the financial advisory group that brings together town, school and Jones Library officials. Still, Slaughter said he has begun conversations with elementary school principals and other administrators about how to make cuts that have the least disruptive impact on students.

“There’s going to be some tough choices, I think,” Slaughter said. “If we can think of ways to structure ourselves differently, that is part and parcel of what we are going to do, and that hopefully has a level of impact that is more moderated.”

The School Committee will have a March 19 vote on the final budget that will be brought to the Town Council for approval.

School Committee member Irv Rhodes said the district needs to maintain a level of instructional quality at Crocker Farm, Wildwood and Fort River schools, and to not deviate from that unless absolutely necessary.

“I would like to see our guidance to Doug be that we adhere to a philosophy that has been in place since I’ve been on the School Committee,” Rhodes said. “If cuts are going to happen, and they certainly look like they’re going to happen, that they be made further from the classroom first before they are made anywhere else.”

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Shannon Bernacchia, interim finance director, provided more details on the budget. It includes $750,000 in school choice revenue, $287,000 from the so-called circuit breaker that is related to special education costs, $850,000 from the University of Massachusetts and $400,000 left from the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund that has to be used by Sept. 30.

The challenges, Bernacchia said, are a 5.8% increase in salaries, based on cost of living adjustments and step increases included in settled contracts; the continued trend of inflation across the board in all categories, including transportation and insurance; and payments for special education contracted work. Because the district has not been able to find people for certain positions, the schools have used contracted services for this, she said.

“It is certainly a difficult budget, but I’m hoping some of the funds from the special education we’re getting will help alleviate some of the FY24 budget, but also FY25,” Bernacchia said.

Slaughter said there is hope that more support for the current year’s budget might mean more ESSER money is available for next year’s budget.

School Committee member Sarah Marshall said the budget doesn’t seem to reflect the fiscal cliff that has prompted concerns for the future of school funding. Slaughter said he hopes the plans, including using of $400,000 in ESSER funds, are stretching the cliff across a couple of years and will make it less abrupt in trying to deal with limited resources.