Amherst Regional School budget cutting 10 teachers runs into buzz saw of opposition

Amherst Regional Middle School.

Amherst Regional Middle School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-28-2024 4:11 PM

AMHERST — A proposed $34.81 million fiscal year 2025 budget for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, necessitating cutting 10 teachers and professionals between the high school and middle school, is facing opposition from parents, students and staff, who are calling on the Regional School Committee to reject the reductions.

“This town, at least from what we have seen from the past, made education a priority,” parent Nicolette Blount, whose family moved to Amherst for the school system, told the School Committee during Tuesday’s public hearing on the budget. “I don’t know if that’s the case now, sadly.”

Because of the proposed reductions, the budget should be considered “a no go,” said parent Amber Cano-Martin, adding that the School Committee, as an elected body, has the power to dictate the budget brought to the Amherst Town Council and Town Meetings in Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham for approval.

“What we would like (the School Committee) to say to the town is that what you have offered as a budget is unacceptable, it’s not enough to fund a school district,” Cano-Martin said.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter said that a $36.5 million budget is needed to maintain the current level of services at the regional schools, where students from the four towns in grades 7-12 are educated, but only $34.81 million is available, based on a combination of $22.7 million in assessments the four communities will pay, and $12.1 million in other revenue.

There are $1.69 million in targeted changes, Slaughter said. “That’s a pretty big number, an uncomfortable number,” Slaughter said.

That includes $1.36 million in reductions, including 21 staff, and $331,500 in other budget adjustments, even after applying $500,000 in remaining Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief fund money,

The largest savings in the reduced budget is $420,000 from eliminating six high school teachers and professionals and $287,000 from eliminating just over four middle school teachers and professionals. Other reductions include $210,000 in savings from cutting just over two full-time central office administrators, $140,000 from high school staff restructuring and reassignment, and $100,000 from cutting four high school paraeducators.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Music in the sky: Summit House Sunset Concert Series returns to its 173-year-old home
Knitters’ paradise: Webs, ‘America’s Yarn Store’ and a mainstay for Valley crafters for generations, turns 50
Easthampton to lose Pepin school gymnasium as public recreation space
Easthampton’s 11 Ferry St. project promises affordable five-story, 96-unit complex
Taylor Haas takes the reins as new executive director at Three County Fairgrounds
Sunderland receives $195K grant to study, design multi-use trail from Whately to Amherst

Slaughter said it’s inevitable that class sizes will go up. “This is the staff that teaches kids (and) provides direct support to students,” Slaughter said.

The other savings include eliminating two custodial staff hired during the pandemic, at $76,000; losing one clerical staff member, at $35,000; saving $65,371 through staff turnover; and saving $15,000 from restructuring the summer school program.

The hearing was only to take feedback from the public in advance of the committee’s March 12 vote on the budget. Amherst representative Jennifer Shaio suggested having another meeting before that date where the School Committee could further discuss the budget.

Two other Amherst representatives, Irv Rhodes and Bridget Hynes, said the budget cuts as proposed would be “devastating.”

Haydn Reilly Hogan, a high school senior from Shutesbury, told the committee other areas should be cut before instructional staffing.

“It’s a really important thing to think about the inefficiencies that we do have and the places we can cut back and the places where we don’t have any space for cuts, and that’s teachers and paraprofessionals and that’s people who actually interact with students like me every day,” Reilly Hogan said.

Leaders of the Amherst Pelham Education Association, the union representing teachers, paraprofessionals and clerical staff, also spoke to the committee.

“Not even being adequately funded now, and on top of that prioritizing cuts, is not an option,” said Molly Cooksey, a member of the APEA executive board.

Part of the pushback comes from what the union contends is bloat in the administration. Union members provided a spreadsheet showing the district is spending almost $1.5 million on various interim leadership positions, such as assistant principals and assistant directors for the finance and information technology departments.

“Justify every position that’s been added, because we’re talking about (losing) student-facing positions,” said Claire Coccoa, a middle school teacher, who observes that larger class sizes will mean losing some of the personal attention teachers provide to students.

Cocco said cuts also endanger programs and, along with larger class sizes, will diminish the opportunity to attract school choice students.

Some of those reacting to the budget, including parent Allegra Clark, suggested seeking money elsewhere. Clark wondered if the town could put some American Rescue Plan Act funds that had been earmarked for the sixth grade move to the middle school toward the operating budget instead.

Vincent O’Connor, a longtime resident, proposed a three-pronged solution, including making appeals for more money from Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts. O’Connor also encouraged the School Committee to seek a budget that meets school needs, and force Town Manager Paul Bockelman to recommend against that budget and the Town Council to vote it down.

“In 3½ months, by the time the City Council (sic) in Amherst votes for the budget, this same community of people will convince the City Council that it is in the town’s interest, the four towns’ (interest), to vote the school budget as proposed by the School Committee, and let the town manager deal with the fallout for what they have to do to have a real school budget,” O’Connor said.

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