Small towns wary of Amherst Regional committee’s school budget ask

Amherst Regional High School

Amherst Regional High School STAFF PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-04-2024 6:25 PM

AMHERST — Skepticism and uncertainty from officials in Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury over Amherst Regional School Committee’s appeal for nearly $1 million more from the four member towns is prompting the convening of a four-town meeting next month to discuss the budget plan that aims to preserve 15 educator positions at the high school and middle school.

With initial feedback from Finance Committees and Select Boards in the smaller towns that more information is needed about the budget adopted by the regional committee on March 14, Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter told the regional panel on Tuesday that the committee, joined by Finance Committees, Select Boards and Amherst Town Council, will meet on April 20. That date comes prior to the Town Meetings in Shutesbury and Leverett, both set for April 27, and Pelham on May 11.

The regional committee says the additional money is needed to support a $35.75 million fiscal year 2025 spending plan. Each town is being presented with 8.2% increases in their fiscal year 2025 assessments, more than double — and in the case of Shutesbury more than triple — the increase in assessments initially projected for a $34.81 million fiscal year 2025 budget.

As Slaughter was providing this information in Amherst, at the same time in Leverett the town’s Select Board voted unanimously to have voters at Town Meeting adopt a $1.02 million assessment for the regional schools, corresponding to the amount needed to support the smaller regional budget.

A separate article would seek to add $64,271 to the assessment to bring it up to the amount needed to support the bigger regional budget.

Leverett Select Board Chairman Tom Hankinson said the vote comes with a strong urging for another four-town meeting.

Board member Patricia Duffy said she wants to support a sustainable regional budget and one that is right-sized for the district, while board member Melissa Colbert said she would like Leverett to approve the higher assessment, and then revisit this if the spending is not supported by the other towns.

The board’s vote came after Tilman Wolf, Leverett’s representative to the regional committee, explained the rationale for the higher regional budget, including preventing a diminished world languages program at the middle school and the elimination of the restorative justice program at both schools. “Items that affected student experience we tried to keep in the budget,” Wolf said.

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The Leverett Finance Committee earlier voted for the lower assessment and its four members present were deadlocked on supporting more spending.

Committee member Nancy Grossman said it was frustrating that, at a December four towns meeting, significant cuts were outlined, but the regional committee waited until mid-March to vote. Grossman said she also is worried that the money would plug the hole for one year, but there is no long-term strategic plan, such as appealing to the state for help.

Adding money doesn’t make better education, said Isaiah Robison, observing opportunities abound for education with the Five Colleges and community colleges.

They voted against the higher budget.

But committee member Philip Carter said a vote in favor would show commitment to high quality schools, and the committee should defer to the judgment of the school committee. Committee member Bethany Seeger agreed. “I want to get this before voters,” Seeger said.

Leverett’s action is similar to how the other towns have approached the issue, according to information presented at the regional school committee meeting.

Regional School Committee Chairwoman Sarahbess Kenney, a Pelham representative, said her town’s Select Board and Finance Committee are not recommending the approved school committee budget right now. “It’s not a no, they just had some requests,” Kenney said.

One of those asks is for a three-year budget forecast that would be brought to the four-town meeting.

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said the Shutesbury Finance Committee voted that the regional request is not tenable, with an 8.2% increase a really hard reach, and that a four towns meeting is needed to discuss the spending and how assessments are determined.

“They do not feel like they can afford such a substantial increase in funding,” Heard said.

Heard said Shutesbury needs to know what Amherst is doing, but is open to increased funding.

The four-town meeting, Slaughter said, could yield some level of agreement, though the regional committee may have to take another vote afterward.

“Even if we figured it out on a Saturday you still have to have a meeting to vote the budget and then have it available for them to offer as an alternative motion at town meetings,” Slaughter said.

To meet the request from Pelham, the district’s business office is projecting out and forecasting the budgets for the next few years, Slaughter said, though he cautioned that will include many assumptions around enrollment, state aid, staff and teacher contracts and school choice admittance.

“I think it’s an appropriate request and it’s necessary for the towns to make some level of judgment about what you did pass and what’s coming in the coming years,” Slaughter said.