Amherst gets good budget news that could stave off cuts

Ariel Templeton, a music teacher for the Amherst elementary schools, teaches band at Wildwood.

Ariel Templeton, a music teacher for the Amherst elementary schools, teaches band at Wildwood. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 02-18-2024 4:01 PM

AMHERST — Amherst’s public schools, municipal government and town libraries are in line to get spending boosts in next year’s budgets that go beyond initial projections, potentially staving off recently announced cuts that could be made to elementary school staffing.

With a favorable fiscal year 2025 assessment for the Hampshire County Retirement System, essentially flat at $7.59 million, the Budget Coordinating Group Friday learned that the 3% budget increases to be allocated to the town, Jones Library and Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools can increase.

“It means overall we’re able to come up with 4%, therefore that’s what we’re proposing to allocate,” said former Finance Director Sandy Pooler, who is working as a consultant on municipal financial matters.

The Budget Coordinating Group brings together two elected members from the Town Council, Amherst School Committee and Jones Library trustees, library, school and town leaders, and the town and school financial teams, during the budget process, where they discuss spending matters and ensure that each segment of the town is getting its fair share.

The increase for both the elementary and regional public schools comes just days after a budget hearing on the $26.71 million fiscal year 2025 budget plan for the elementary schools. That budget, while $777,993 over the current year’s $25.93 million budget, is $903,971 short of providing level services. Even after applying $400,000 in remaining federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund money, the schools had been left with a $503,971 deficit.

This has prompted school officials to find cost savings, including $343,571 through eliminating nearly six positions, including an elementary school instrumental music teacher. That would mean pushing back the start of instrumental music to fifth grade for students at Wildwood, Crocker Farm and Fort River schools. Other cuts would include two special education teachers, one each at Wildwood and Crocker Farm. Those proposals have been the subject of significant feedback from families and students.

School Committee Vice Chairman Irv Rhodes said after hearing the concerns from numerous families, he appreciates that the bigger increase, at close to $1.04 million, means more than $250,000 more to spend. “It’s really great news in terms of the 4%,” Rhodes said.

The elementary school budget could go up to $26.97 million with the increase.

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“This is welcome news in regard to the regional budget, as well as the Amherst budget,” said interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter.

Slaughter said the 4% increase could also benefit the Amherst-Pelham Regional School, allowing the town’s regional assessment to rise by $710,881, to $18.48 million, or about $177,000 more than original projections.

Using the 3% guideline, projected level services at the regional level have been $1.88 million short, at $36.5 million. Slaughter said he and his financial team are working on closing that gap in advance of a budget hearing on Feb. 27.

With regional school cuts expected to be steeper than for the elementary schools, Slaughter suggested directing some of the increase from the elementary schools to the regional schools.

Slaughter said representatives from all four towns will be part of that conversation, as any increase in Amherst’s assessment can affect the smaller towns, based on a formula that is voted on by each town. The current formula includes so-called guardrails that limit the maximum assessment increase to 4% for any town. Leverett and Pelham are already at that threshold, but Shutesbury is not.

At-Large Councilor Andy Steinberg said there is precedent for applying more money to the regional schools. In a previous year, he said, Amherst provided a financial “gift” on top of the assessment it was obligated to make.

At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke said she wants to keep the 4% guidelines for the town, schools and libraries, though agreed about giving the schools some leeway to consider their spending as a K-12 district.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said the library budget is being challenged by rising health insurance, and unknown costs related to where the library will be located during the two-year construction project to expand and renovate the Jones Library.

“We’re thrilled to get a 4% for next year,” Sharry said. “That will help us immensely.”

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the town budget is in the midst of being developed for a May 1 deadline, a month later than the library and schools. While no cuts or adjustments have been discussed publicly, he said there are enormous needs for the town that a 4% increase will help.

Council President Lynn Griesemer said because of an aberration for the town’s retirement payment this year, Amherst received good news. “It’s not something that we can assume will show up in another year,” Griesemer said.

Even with the positive development, Steinberg said he is continuing advocacy with the Massachusetts Municipal Association that would increase Chapter 70 aid for schools from $30 per student to $100 per student.

During public comment at the end of the meeting, parent Maddalena Coppi told the representatives that better funding for the schools would help avoid special education and instrumental music cuts.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.