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Amherst elementary schools face $737,000 in cuts

The committee also learned that the elementary schools are falling short of the state requirement of at least 900 hours of structured learning time per year.

Additional information on these two sobering revelations will be presented at the committee’s next meeting Feb. 5.

The elementary budget for this year is $21.5 million. Maintaining the status quo in services would require spending $22.6 million next year, but town officials are seeking only a 2 percent increase, so the budget target is $21.9 million. Because of the need to spend $80,000 more in certain areas, the actual cuts come to $737,000, said Superintendent Maria Geryk.

“This will be a difficult time, a time of innovation, a time of change,” she told the committee. “There will be times when it will be wrenching because change is tough. This transition will feel uncomfortable and new at times, but I believe the outcome is a school system that becomes stronger and more sustainable for our children.”

Some of the cuts will result from retirements and declining enrollment, Geryk said. She will meet with principals over the next three weeks to determine where the cuts will come, but said they will be “across the board.”

She attributed the need for belt-tightening to an ending of federal stimulus money, declining grants, higher payments to charter schools and increased labor costs. Negotiations on a new contract with the employee unions will start next month.

Geryk said she expects that state aid to local schools will be “flat at best.”

“We’re going to have to think about this outside the box,” said Katherine Appy, who chairs the committee. “How are we going to adjust our school system so we can meet our goals of providing the best education for all our students?”

Committee member Richard Hood questioned why it would cost 5 percent more than the current year’s budget to maintain the status quo. A recent report showed that a big factor in Amherst’s high per-pupil costs is a student-teacher ratio of 10-1, compared to a state average of 14-1, he said.

A report on the number of hours of structured learning in Amherst was compiled by the New England School Development Council. It found that students in grades 1 through 4 receive a maximum of 847 hours of learning per year, while students in grades 5 and 6 get 890 hours.

“The most obvious solution to the shortfall is the reduction in the number of early dismissal days, a solution many school districts in Massachusetts have embraced,” the report said. Elementary students currently are released early on 41 days per year, said Kathryn Mazur, the director of human resources.

“We have to see what we can do to make this right,” she told the committee Tuesday, “We’re in violation of the law.”

Mazur said the problem is administrative and not the fault of teachers. The leadership of the teachers’ union have seen the report and attended Tuesday’s meeting but did not speak.

The goal is to make changes in scheduling that will take effect next fall, Mazur said. There may be a survey of parents and guardians to get their perspectives on the problem, she said.

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