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Amherst schools to continue accepting out-of-district students

The Amherst committee voted unanimously to continue accepting school choice students at the elementary level, but the plan received less support from the regional school committee. Regional School Committee Chairman Kip Fonsh of Leverett voted against the measure and member Michael DeChiara of Shutesbury abstained.

When the issue was up for debate at the March 12 meeting, Fonsh spoke against accepting school choice students because, he said, the funding structure creates a lottery that benefits students who choice into schools at the expense of other students.

Some critics say that choice is bad for schools because when schools accepts choice students, the districts they leave lose revenue, Superintendent Maria Geryk said.

“I am adamantly opposed to school choice,” Fonsh said March 12. “I don’t think there should be winners and losers in public education.”

The regional school district, which serves Amherst, Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury, has 94 choice students this year, the Gazette reported in December. More than half of those students come from Hadley (35) and Belchertown (16), while others live as far away as Ashfield, Orange and Worthington.

“This isn’t necessarily a money game to us at all,” said Kathryn Mazur, the director of human resources for the district. “It is all about providing educational support for those students that are within our four communities and then providing the opportunity for students outside of our community as available to benefit from an Amherst education.”

The elementary district accepted school choice students for the first time this year, while the regional district has offered school choice since 1999. More than 1,200 choice students have attended the middle and high school since then, and they have brought the schools more than $6 million in income.

The elementary schools may have room for additional choice students in kindergarten, second and third grades, according to Mazur. She expects that the regional schools will accept additional choice students in all grades except seventh.

The district uses choice students to fill out classrooms that have capacity, but they do not hire additional staff in order to serve choice students, Mazur said. Students who have already placed into Amherst through school choice can remain in the district automatically, and students who have placed into Amherst, Pelham or Leverett through school choice are automatically accepted into the regional high school. Shutesbury does not accept school choice students.

The district anticipates that before admitting additional choice students all three grades will have 15 to 17 students per class. Elementary school classes in Amherst typically range from 16 to 23 students.

Mazur said there could be as many as 24 slots available for additional choice students in the regional middle and high schools.

Amherst School Committee member Rick Hood and Regional School Committee member Amilcar Shabazz were not present.

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