Superintendent warns of 20 staff cuts in Amherst-Pelham regional schools

Douglas Slaughter

Douglas Slaughter FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-23-2024 9:56 PM

AMHERST — Even with Amherst officials signaling a commitment to increase the town’s financial obligation to the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, around 20 staff members, including classroom teachers and paraeducators, could be eliminated at the middle and high schools next year.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slasughter told representatives from Amherst, Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham at a Four Towns Meeting on Saturday that the projected $34.81 million fiscal year 2025 budget remains about $1.59 million below the $36.5 million in spending needed to maintain the current level of services, necessitating major staff reductions.

“(There are) things we’ll have to do without, changes in how we do our work and what we can offer,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter said the Four Towns Meeting, bringing together the Amherst Town Council, School Committee and Finance Committee with the Select Boards, School Committees and Finance Committees from Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury, marks the beginning of “difficult conversations” in advance of annual Town Meetings in the smaller communities.

The news about the looming cuts came a day after Amherst officials, organized as the Budget Coordinating Group, learned that the town could adjust the year-over-year increase in its regional schools assessment from 3% to $4%, based on a favorable assessment from the Hampshire County Retirement System. A similar adjustment is being made for the Amherst elementary schools, which could help prevent proposed cuts there, including to a district instrumental music teacher and special education teachers.

But Slaughter said with inflationary pressures continuing and most expenses going up, and despite being able to apply $500,000 in remaining Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief fund money, cuts will still need to be made at the regional level. In addition to the assessments to the four towns, the budget is built from state Chapter 70 aid and other assorted revenues.

He gave a broad overview of what might happen, with more specificity expected at the Amherst Regional School Committee meeting Feb. 27. Slaughter said plans will be refined during school vacation week.

In the preliminary outline, the staff reductions would include six teachers and professionals and four paraeducators at the high school, four teachers and professionals at the middle school, three non-instructional staff in the secondary schools and two administrators in the central office.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Jena Schwartz: Things I have not said
In federal lawsuit, teacher accuses Amherst schools of violating civil rights, other district policies
It’s official: Belchertown’s request to create town manager position OK’d by state
Defying the odds: Hadley’s Owen Earle back competing less than two years removed from horrific accident
As Hadley works on energy storage bylaw, some question why the town has to allow them at all
Amherst officials cool to bid to double spending hike for regional schools

Slaughter said class sizes will increase as a result, but some of the adjustments are what he terms a “natural contraction” following an increase in staffing during the pandemic.

With Amherst’s anticipated decision to have its assessment go up, the deficit in the regional schools budget is reduced by $195,373, with the combined assessments for the four towns going up from $22.54 million to $22.73 million. The assessments are determined through a combination of an assessment method set statutorily by the state and a method unique to the region that includes a five-year rolling average of student enrollment.

Amherst’s $18.31 million assessment, up by $533,491 when calculated at 3% more than the previous year’s assessment, would rise by an additional $177,414, while Shutesbury’s $1.58 million assessment, up $21,373 or 1.4%, would rise by an additional $17,959, meaning the town would see a 2.52% increase.

But these adjustments don’t affect the assessments from the two other towns due to a guardrail system that prevents any town from paying more than 4% more year over year. Pelham’s assessment remains at $1.05 million, up $40,215, or 4%, from fiscal year 2024, and Leverett’s assessment remains at $1.6 million, up $61,640, or 4%.

Leverett officials previously made a written appeal to Amherst to increase its assessment. This appeal also was made by Tilman Wolf, Leverett’s representative to the regional committee.

Even though Shutesbury is affected financially by Amherst’s decision, Finance Committee Chairman Ajay Khashu said the initial feeling is positive, based on earlier discussions.

“We thought this would be feasible for our town,” Khashu said.

Pelham and Leverett representatives, too, appeared OK with the change.

“For right now, we’re comfortable,” said John Trickey, chairman of of the Pelham Finance Committee.

“Leverett can manage this amount,” said Leverett Select Board Chairman Tom Hankinson.

“4% is a large increase, but we can manage,” added Philip Carter, a member of Leverett’s Finance Committee.