Columnist Marylou Theilman: Changes would have negative impact on the schools

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Much has been written about how the proposed new charter will change the municipal side of Amherst town government, but little has been written about its impact on the schools, which receive approximately 61 percent of the town’s annual operating budget.

The five elected Amherst School Committee members serve on two school committees. They serve on the five-member elementary School Committee which oversees prekindergarten through Grade 6, and also on the nine-member Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee which oversees Grades 7 through 12.

The other four members of the Regional School Committee are from Pelham (two members), Leverett (one member) and Shutesbury (one member). Currently, all four towns annually hold elections in the spring within weeks of each other. All towns have staggered three-year terms.

Amherst holds a townwide election to fill its seats (two in each of two years and one in the third year). The other three towns elect their members at their annual town meetings, at which they also approve the regional budgets. Amherst, likewise, approves school budgets at its annual Town Meeting. None have ever been rejected by Town Meeting, and some have had money added.

The proposed charter schedules town elections every two years, in odd-numbered years on the first Tuesday in November. Those elected would take office in January. Without staggered terms, all five Amherst School Committee members could be new members in any given election year.

Spring elections in the other three regional towns, whose School Committee members take office in May, could create the prospect of twice-yearly reorganizations of the regional committee. Amherst members will be serving two-year terms while the members from the other towns will be serving three-year staggered terms. These changes will weaken Amherst’s voice on the Regional School Committee.

The current election cycle with three-year staggered terms for all committee members from all four towns produces the most effective school committee. Committees need time to learn and grow at the job and to gain institutional memory. Elections in the spring allow members to orient themselves to the responsibilities of the office over the summer and prepare for the superintendent’s budget cycle that begins in the fall, with guidance from school and finance committees.

Both elementary and regional budgets are presented in January. Budgets are voted in March and staffing decisions and notices for reappointment made by April 15. The regional budget time line complies with the regional agreement, requiring hearings and notice to towns before their annual town meetings in April or May. Under Amherst’s present full-time government, this allows School Committee members to be involved in three budget cycles.

Since the proposed charter has all Amherst members (re-elected and new) joining the regional committee in January, their terms begin when the budget is basically completed and presented. In their second year, Amherst members will have a full year of budget experience starting in the fall, through spring and approval in May.

However, in the fall of that year, they will be part of the budget process, but will once again be up for re-election in November before the budget is finalized. This proposed election cycle also is out of sync with the budget cycle. The budget process is crucial, as Amherst’s share of the regional school budget is 25 percent of the Town’s Operating Budget.

The elementary budget may have some flexibility in terms of the budget cycle, as it only involves the five Amherst committee members. However, it will be out of sync with the budget cycle for the region with which they share the cost of central office staff and other positions districtwide. Additionally, with the fiscal year running from July 1 through June 30, and budgets designed to match the school year, the ability to adjust even the elementary budget timeline is limited.

Campaigning takes time, energy and money, and running every two years takes time away from the duties of the office. Two-year terms do not provide time for gaining the experience and skill which a member acquires in office and is needed to oversee a total for both districts of more than 600 staff positions, approximately $210.9 million in assets and $58.8 million in annual budgets, not including capital projects funds, which are in the town’s capital budget.

Whatever one may believe about the broad idea of replacing our Select Board and Town Meeting with a 13-member Town Council, this charter proposal has too many details wrong. Approving it would be bad for the schools and the town as a whole.

Marylou Theilman, of Amherst, is chairwoman of the Amherst Finance Committee, former chairwoman of the Amherst Pelham Regional School Committee, and the retired dean of Health, Technology and Education at Holyoke Community College.