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School budget vote delayed Parents ask board  to rethink cuts

Amherst committee seeks more feedback

The Amherst School Committee delayed voting on the controversial school budget for next year to allow time for more public feedback, but gave no indication that feedback would lead to budget changes.

The budget calls for severe staffing cuts to make up a $656,303 budget gap in the Amherst elementary schools. The equivalent of close to 17 full-time positions would be cut under the budget, including the equivalent of almost five teaching positions, one guidance counselor position, nine paraprofessional positions and the equivalent of 3.2 administrative positions.

The budget will now be voted on March 12, at a specially scheduled Amherst School Committee session that will follow a Regional School Committee meeting.

Although some of the reductions would occur through attrition, Superintendent Maria Geryk said that in order to accomplish the reductions, the elementary schools will need to lay off some staff and reduce hours for others. According to Geryk, the cuts will not effect instruction time.

Geryk has been responding to intense criticism of her proposed budget since it was released at the Feb. 5 School Committee meeting. During a public comment period at that meeting, parents spoke out about cuts to “specials” — art, music, and physical education — which are being reduced by the equivalent of 1.1 full time positions.

In response to that criticism, Geryk released a clarified version of the budget and wrote a column for the Amherst Bulletin. But the only change in the budget since it was presented Feb. 5 is that reductions in music will be slightly less than originally planned. The equivalent of 30 percent of a full-time music instructor will be cut, instead of the equivalent of 40 percent.

Geryk said she made the change to the reduction in music based on public feedback, but she is confident that the cuts to specials are appropriate.

“I looked at every single area within the budget,” said Geryk in a phone conversation following the meeting. “It is thoroughly about enrollments. And I said this publicly. I would make these cuts regardless of if we had a budget gap or not, because I’m asking the public to pay for and support our schools. And I’m supposed to be fiscally responsible when I’m putting out a budget. I shouldn’t be asking for staff that are not essential.”

School Committee members said that in the past three weeks, they have received feedback from parents who are opposed to the reductions in specials, but they also praised the superintendent’s work in producing the budget.

Committee member Richard Hood said that the role of the committee was to listen to public feedback and ask the superintendent whether she is sure that this is the best budget for the schools.

“You and your team, and I think it’s important to say it’s not just your budget, it’s a whole bunch of people’s budget, are really thinking hard about this and feel like you’re doing the right thing,” Hood said.

The parents who spoke during the public comment period gave impassioned pleas to find other areas to reduce in order to keep specials intact.

Deborah Leonard, who has two children in Fort River School, said her family moved back to Amherst from North Carolina because the quality of the schools.

“The schools that we found down there lacked a sense of soul and heart,” Leonard said. “If there is another solution, can we please look a little harder and dig a little deeper?”

Although Geryk has said that art, music and physical education time will not be reduced, many parents said that it is important to have full-time specials teachers in schools, rather than having teachers work in multiple elementary schools, because of the work that they do to build community and enhance the curriculum outside of regular classroom hours.

“Having the most outstanding teachers means that you treat them with the same status as the other staff,” said Ellen Alvord, who also has a child at the Fort River School. “Having them full time is really important not only for the enrichment that they can provide in those off hours, but also recruiting and retaining the best people.”

Jeannette Wicks-Lim, who came to represent the Special Education Parents Advisory Council, said that they are most concerned with the cuts to paraprofessionals, but Geryk said only one of the paraprofessionals being cut serves a special needs student, and that student no longer needs a paraprofessional.

In addition to offering two public comment periods during the meeting, the school board invited parents to ask questions about the budget on forms distributed at the meeting and through email.

But at the end of the meeting, some parents felt that although there were opportunities to speak, the superintendent and the school committee were not doing enough to incorporate that feedback into the final budget.

“I don’t understand the process and I don’t understand the decision,” Leonard said after the meeting.

Geryk said that she listens to feedback from parents and committee members, but she must make the ultimate decisions about the budget because “I’m the one who’s charged with creating a plan to move the system forward.”

The foreign language program will be completely eliminated by the cuts, but this raised little comment at the meeting. The board voted unanimously to suspend a district policy that was implemented in 2010 requiring instruction in Spanish in the elementary schools.

In other business, the committee voted to end Wednesday early release days in elementary schools and instead have a later start time every morning in order to allow teachers time to collaborate. Geryk said she anticipates that the school day will run from 8:50 a.m. to 3:10 p.m. five days a week.

The change comes in response to a finding that Amherst elementary schools are not providing enough structured learning time to meet state requirements.

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