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Amherst elementary schoools budget approved

Town Meeting approved a $21.99 million budget for the elementary schools, which is $431,160, or 2 percent higher, than this year’s $21.56 million budget.

Due to declining student enrollment, the budget will support 15.8 fewer full-time equivalent staff members across the three schools.

Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Appy said the budget is consistent with the district improvement plan, enriches programs for students and ensures support for struggling students.

Appy said Superintendent Maria Geryk made cuts without impacting class sizes or diminishing the educational experience, meaning music, art and physical education will be identical for students next year.

“The superintendent and her team have built a responsible and sustainable budget,” Appy said.

Geryk said she tried to create a financially viable school system that maintains community values, but acknowledged that she had to make some changes, such as putting world languages into the after-school program.

Town Meeting members raised questions about the high costs for central administration, which Geryk attributed to the complexity of the student population that requires heavy oversight. This includes the large numbers in special education, the 14 percent who are English language learners and 40 percent of students who are “income eligible.”

Town Meeting also adopted a $14.16 million assessment for the regional schools to support a $29.13 million budget plan. The assessment is $412,396, or 3 percent, higher than this year. Amherst was obligated to approve the assessment after Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury all OK’d their assessments.

At the regional level, there will be 11.6 fewer full-time equivalents, again caused by declining student enrollment.

Regional School Committee Chairman Kip Fonsh said the schools are entering an era of strong and visionary stewardship after several years of crisis.

Fonsh said the committee is looking forward to successful future and educational achievement for all students

“The emphasis on providing a meaningful and substantive education for all children is a mantra of this administration and School Committee,” Fonsh said.

Declining enrollment at the regional schools was a concern brought up by many Town Meeting members.

Geryk said the reasons vary, from a general population drop to parents seeking a smaller school environment or schools where arts are more integrated into the curriculum.

“We have to pay attention because we want to have our kids stay here,” Geryk said.

Geryk said part of the decline is due to Amherst’s lack of affordability.

“It is expensive to live in Amherst,” Geryk said.

Echo Village

Prior to Town Meeting, the Select Board voted 3-1, with one abstention, in favor of a petition warrant article that seeks to appropriate money toward the purchase of Echo Village Apartments, 30 Gatehouse Road. The intent is to buy, for around $2.5 million, the 21 housing units that were purchased by Eagle Crest property management earlier this year.

Town Manager John Musante said this would set in motion a 12- to 18-month process to put together viable funding sources.

Select Board member Diana Stein said she supports the spending. “Echo Village would do a lot not only for the current residents, but for (the town’s) affordable housing stock,” Stein said.

But Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe said it would be mostly a symbolic because it remains unclear how the town would put money toward this. “I just can’t vote for a good intention,” O’Keeffe said.

The warrant article is supported by the Housing and Sheltering Committee, whose Co-Chairman Greg Stutsman said would forward the cause of affordable housing.

Town Meeting endorsed $1.12 million in equipment purchases through the capital fund, including for town and school information systems replacements, three new police cruisers and five CPR devices, one for each town ambulance.

Town Meeting also reauthorized a revolving fund, with a limit of $400,000, to support the Leisure Services and Supplemental Education after-school program.

An article seeking a so-called home rule to allow legal resident immigrants the right to vote on local issues will come before the May 22 session at 7:07 p.m.

•••

Light moment

Gerry Weiss of Precinct 8 asked whether $70,000 proposed for scanning historical documents would pay someone to do the work.

Information Technology Director Kristopher Pacunas confirmed this was the case.

“I’d like to apply for the job,” Weiss said.

While an outside contractor will handle the work, Pacunas said the company may be hiring. “I do think they have job openings,” Pacunas said.

•••

Words to ponder

Grants to support the regional schools have declined from $2 million to $600,000, which coupled with rising central administration costs, caused by reporting requirements and other factors, are putting more burden on finances.

“It’s accurate when people say we are facing unfunded mandates or underfunded mandates,” Geryk said.

Isaac BenEzra of Precinct 8 said it is time for action to appeal for help.

“For too long we’ve stopped at the borders of Amherst instead of going onto Boston and Washington,” BenEzra said

•••

Next up

University of Massachusetts Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy is expected to address Town Meeting Wednesday in support of a joint $60,000 comprehensive study that will plan for the future of both the town and UMass.

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