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Amherst elementary schools face reductions in 21 jobs

Amherst Superintendent Maria Geryk

BULLETIN FILE PHOTO Amherst Superintendent Maria Geryk

Twenty-one school positions are set to be eliminated or cut back in the next school year, Superintendent Maria Geryk said Tuesday, as she outlined for the School Committee her plan for addressing the $656,303 budget gap in the Amherst elementary schools.

“These are really challenging and difficult decisions for all of us. Given the gap that we’re experiencing, which is a substantial gap, we know that we have to make reductions,” said Geryk. “There’s no other way to support our schools, other than reducing our costs.”

The proposal calls for cutting 15 full-time positions, and reducing six positions. Geryk said that fewer than 21 people will be affected because many of the reductions will come from natural attrition.

Under Geryk’s plan, the foreign language program, which began in 2010, will be completely cut — 1.5 full-time foreign language positions will be eliminated, which will save $86,324.

During a public comment period at the start of the committee meeting, several parents expressed anger that the reductions fell more heavily on teachers than administrators. Slightly fewer than five teachings positions, one guidance counselor, and nine paraprofessional positions would be cut under Geryk’s budget, while only 3.2 administrative positions would be cut. A “Steps to Success” liaison would be hired to work with income-eligible families, and additional hours would be added to a bilingual administrative position, at a cost of approximately $80,000.

“I think the people who are going are the wrong people. I’m asking the School Committee to not cut teachers who are on the front line,” said Angela Mills, who has two sons at the Crocker Farm School and read from a statement. “If the grant monies are drying up, I ask that we not hire a grant writer. If there are multi-levels of administrators who administer to administrators, then please consider those people on the cut list, and keep the hands on deck to deal with the education of kids.”

School Committee members were generally supportive of Geryk’s recommendations. “Not only are you dealing with the cuts of this year,” said Katherine Appy, chair of the committee, “but it seems obvious to me that you’re now also talking about sustainability over the next many years, because who knows what the financial picture is going to look like next year.”

Geryk said the foreign language program has not been fully integrated into the schedule and students have not gained enough proficiency to skip grades of Spanish in middle school, which was the original goal of the program.

“At this point, if I look at the cost-benefit comparison, I don’t think that it’s a benefit that’s worth the cost,” said Geryk.

“I was staunchly supportive of the policy that led to the program,” said Rob Spence, vice chair of the committee, “but I do agree it’s probably time to suspend it at this time, given the budget cuts that we’re facing. I do have a child that’s had three years of the world language program, and I think because of its implementation and its limitation to the special rotation, it really hasn’t worked very well.”

Geryk said that Spanish, and an additional language, will be added to the after school program.

Parents who spoke at the meeting were also frustrated that “specials” — art, music, physical education in addition to foreign languages — are facing the most severe cuts. The plan Geryk presented calls for cutting the equivalent of half of a full-time position for an art teacher, two-fifths of a position for a music teacher, and one-third of a position for a physical education teacher. These cuts will save a total of $69,060. The Wildwood School would see the only classroom teacher cut, which Geryk said is a result of declining enrollment.

Geryk said the cuts to special teaching positions will not result in less class time or larger class sizes for students. Instead, the reductions will come at the expense of the unscheduled slots that these instructors have for work such as chorus and art installations. The teachers will still have unscheduled slots but they will be cut to four per week.

The cuts are severe enough that they will result in layoffs and reductions in hours for some current staff, according to Geryk. She said by email that the majority of the staff members who will be laid off or have their hours cut, along with those who will be reassigned, have been notified.

Kristen Lynch, who has a daughter at the Fort River School and a son in ninth grade who used to attend Fort River, said the school’s music teacher told her that her position had been reduced from five days a week to three.

Lynch said she believes cuts will do damage to programs and aren’t worth the savings of about $66,000. She said the music teacher at the Fort River School is an integral part of the community, and if the position were cut to three days a week, it would be detrimental for the school, even if students receive the same amount of class time for music.

Geryk confirmed that the Fort River School would have the equivalent of four-fifths of a full time music teacher next year, but she would not comment on the specific people who faced cuts.

The budget is still in flux, according to Geryk, who emphasized that the community can still make comments before it is finalized. The School Committee will vote Feb. 26 on a final budget to send to Town Meeting.

The meeting also included a discussion of structured learning time in classrooms, following a recent study’s findings that the elementary schools are not providing enough structured learning time to comply with state requirements.

Michael Morris, the director of educational evaluation and assessment analysis, presented several options for meeting the requirements, including requiring music education in fifth and sixth grades — so it qualifies as structured learning time — and changing the school schedule to run from 8:50 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. five days a week, replacing the early release on Wednesday with additional teacher preparation time before the start of each day.

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