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Consultant reports salaries, number of teachers drive per-pupil spending in Amherst

AMHERST — Per-pupil costs for elementary schools are much higher than average in Amherst because salaries are high and there are more teachers per student than in comparable towns, according to a consultant.

Additional factors contributing to the $17,116 per-pupil cost in fiscal 2011 are the high number of low-income and non-English-speaking families in Amherst, the breadth of elementary school offerings and rising costs for pensions and health insurance for retired teachers, said Gail Zeman, past president of the Massachusetts Association of School Business Officials.

The Amherst School Committee paid her $5,000 to explain why its elementary costs are among the highest in the state. She compared per-pupil costs with those in nine other Western Massachusetts towns plus Brookline, Framingham, Norfolk and Plainville. Amherst’s per-pupil costs are the highest of these 14 towns, and the average is $14,002, she said.

“Education is of great value here, and that you should be proud of, but with that there are costs,” she told the committee Tuesday.

The average Amherst elementary teacher salary of $66,484 in 2011 was not as high as the $80,485 average in Brookline or $73,653 in Framingham, but most salaries are higher in the Boston area, Zeman said. Deerfield pays elementary teachers an average of $55,015, while Leverett pays $59,975 and Shutesbury $57,637.

There are 10 teachers for every student in the Amherst elementary schools, compared to a state average of 13.9, Zeman said. Brookline and Framingham have ratios of 12.7 to 1, Northampton’s is 12.9 to 1, and Plainville’s is 15.6 to 1.

More low-income and immigrant families have moved to Amherst in recent years, Zeman said. The elementary schools are now composed of 36.6 percent low-income families, compared to Brookline’s 14.4 percent, Longmeadow’s 4.1 percent, and Shutesbury’s 13.7 percent.

Families with limited English proficiency comprise 14.6 percent of Amherst’s elementary schools, compared to an average of 3.3 percent in the 14 towns. Thirty primary languages are spoken in Amherst, she said.

“You have some real challenges in taking care of students learning English as a second language,” Zeman said.

Amherst exposes elementary students to art, music and Spanish, she said. “There are offerings available here that aren’t available in the majority of districts around the state anymore,” she said. “I applaud you.”

Amherst offers more generous retirement and insurance benefits than other towns, Zeman said. “That one will be the killer in the long term,” she said. “You’re hitting the beginning of baby-boomer retirement, and fewer people will be supporting more retired employees, who will be living longer and using the benefits longer.”

Per-pupil administrative costs would decrease if Amherst and three other towns agree to regionalize their elementary as well as secondary schools, Zeman said. She recommended saving money on utilities by switching more buildings to gas heat, as the Regional Middle School recently did.

The people of Amherst have to decide whether high per-pupil costs represent a problem, and if so, whether they want to make a change, she said.

“There’s a historic value for education here and that’s a wonderful thing,” Zeman said. “I would hope that the seat of the flagship University of Massachusetts campus would value education. But there’s costs to that and the taxpayers have to be willing and able to afford that cost over time.”

Zeman’s report will be put on the school district’s Web site, arps.org.

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