Residents float solutions for school budget woes in Amherst-Pelham Regional district

Amherst Regional High School

Amherst Regional High School FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 03-08-2024 2:07 PM

AMHERST — Future Proposition 2½ overrides, a one-time gift from municipal reserves and appeals for financial help from Amherst’s higher education institutions are among ideas members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee are floating in response to significant staff reductions at the middle and high schools anticipated next fall.

With a vote on the $34.81 million budget scheduled for Tuesday, the committee this week was presented detailed information from administrators about the impact of removing $1.69 million in spending to present a balanced budget, necessitating the elimination of 14 teachers, paraeducators and professional staff at the two regional schools, including classroom instructors, counselors and restorative justice coordinators.

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao suggested a multi-faceted solution in the face of what she said is the main enemy: the state’s Proposition 2½ law, which is preventing the schools from bringing forward a $36.5 million budget that would maintain level services for the schools where grades 7-12 students from Amherst, Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham are educated.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Shiao said.

Her idea is to convene a working group to study having a Proposition 2½ general override vote in time for the 2025-2026 season, in all four towns, while this year asking for a one-time infusion of cash from the communities to save the most important positions.

The idea of one-time money was also brought by Leverett representative Tilman Wolf, who asked Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter whether money would be available from existing accounts.

Amherst representative Bridget Hynes tossed out the idea of appointing a negotiating team to meet with Amherst College about providing financial support. “I think we need to look into that and really be at the forefront of that, as well,” Hynes said.

Massachusetts has been reducing its commitment to schools, said Amherst representative Sarah Marshall. This prompted her to have the idea of school committee convening a forum with state Rep. Mindy Domb, state Sen. Jo Comerford and U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern to explore solutions. “The financial trend is just going to be beyond the capacity of our four towns to solve,” Marshall said.

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Amherst representative Irv Rhodes said he believes the regional school model is broken and needs to be looked at, possibly restructured and reevaluated, so children’s education is the priority. He added that Amherst spending also should be revisited. “We need to know and say that education is a priority,” Rhodes said.

Principal Talib Sadiq laid out the scope of the cuts, saying that while efforts were to minimize disruptions, education will change. “Obviously our students are going to have fewer choices now, and some of their favorite teachers are being told to leave,” Sadiq said.

Administrators are trying to figure out how to deal with less programming, keeping students’ experience meaningful without overburdening educators, and meeting the demands of special education, he said. “The number of high needs students has risen, even in face of enrollment decline,” Sadiq said.

Sadiq also took a swipe at Amherst putting money toward a renovated and expanded library. “I have to say how frustrated I am with the townspeople, how once again they’ve chosen to not make the public schools a priority,” Sadiq said.

Sadiq said the middle school roof leaked at the beginning of the school year, forcing students in six classrooms to be reassigned when ceiling tiles collapsed, and then two additional classrooms to be moved later. “It’s not a safe environment,” Sadiq said.

In addition to the middle school roof, Sadiq said the high school track has been in poor condition since 2012 and for five years the school has had no home track meets, another illustration of the physical challenges for the schools.

Putting pressure on the University of Massachusetts and Amherst College to provide money in addition to a minimal contribution may be necessary, Sadiq said.

“I want to know how and what the school community is going to do to make sure we’re not in the same position next year and going forward, because this can’t continue, something has got to give,” Sadiq said.

Potential cuts

Miki Gromacki, assistant principal at the high school, explained that one proposed change is to consolidate 11 departments to seven departments, with no impact on class sizes.

Specific cuts would include eliminating a half-time math teacher, a half-time health and physical education teacher, a half-time performing arts teacher, one guidance counselor one restorative justice coordinator and two paraeducators.

At the middle school, assistant principal Rich Ferro said one language instructor would be cut, meaning fewer sections of each language offered: French, Spanish, Latin and Chinese. Two paraeducators would also go, along with a restorative justice coordinator.

The reaction to the specifics made some committee members uncomfortable in recommending the budget. A vote has to be taken in advance of Leverett’s Town Meeting at the end of April, where voters will be presented the town’s assessment.

“Cutting special ed and cutting the adjustment counselors, these are areas that are absolutely critical and in more need right now,” said Shutesbury representative Anna Heard.

“These proposed cuts are just shocking, there’s no way around it,” Marshall said.

“I’m really not liking the way this looks,” Hynes said.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what cuts we have to think about,” Wolf said.

“They’re all terrible, I don’t like any of them, and I’m sure you don’t either,” Shiao said.

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