Guest columnist Allison McDonald: Amherst school spending explained
|Published: 02-27-2023 11:29 PM
We are deep in the budget planning process for next fiscal year and Amherst schools are facing significant and difficult budget cuts. The uncertainty around the multiple contracts that are not yet settled, including that with the Amherst Pelham Educators Association (APEA), adds to the challenges. Here are some common questions we hear and brief responses to them. Please join the budget hearings on Tuesday, Feb. 28, to share your input. The Amherst elementary schools hearing is at 6 p.m. and the regional schools hearing is at 7:30 p.m. Both hearings are at the ARHS library.
The town of Amherst spends about 60% of its annual operating budget on our public schools. No other department receives more than 17% of the operating budget. In fact, the schools invest more in school employee pay than the town does in public safety, public works, general government, libraries, conservation, and community service departments combined. A diagram at https://rebrand.ly/BudgetDiagram shows an overview of the revenue sources and spending flows for the town and schools’ budgets.
The primary ways the town could increase funding for schools are to cut funding for other town departments or to raise property taxes. Because Amherst invests so much more in schools than in any other town service, an additional increase of nearly $2 million (such as what the APEA is requesting) would require significant cuts to all other town services. Alternatively, the town could ask voters to approve an increase in property taxes of more than the legally-allowed maximum of 2.5%.
Our costs are increasing at a higher rate than funding from Amherst is increasing. For Amherst elementary schools, the costs to provide the same services and programs next year (“level services”) are 6.1% ($1.5 million) higher than this year, while funding from the town is up 2.5% ($600,000). For the regional schools, costs are increasing 5.7% ($1.8 million) while funding from Amherst is increasing 2.5% ($430,000) and all other funding is increasing about $195,000 next year, mostly from the other regional towns.
Since the majority of school budgets is staff salaries, that gap of about $1.1 million in the region and $900,000 in Amherst can be closed only through reducing or eliminating staff positions. Though cuts this large can’t be made without impacting student experience, the School Committee focus is on minimizing that impact as much as possible.
The differences in per-pupil spending between districts are related primarily to the differences in the needs of the students enrolled. In Amherst, 51% of our students are “high needs” as defined by the state, that includes students with disabilities (23%), students whose families are economically disadvantaged (37%) and students learning English (13%). In the regional schools, 44% of students are “high needs.” Additionally, our districts’ staffing models, with small class sizes and low student-to-teacher ratios, our small schools, our family and student support programs, as well as staff pay and benefits, all contribute to higher per-pupil spending than some other districts.
A good way to compare spending across districts while also taking into account the needs of its students is to compare actual spending (“Actual Net School Spending”) to what the state requires (“Required Net School Spending”). Amherst elementary schools are spending 167% of what’s required and regional schools are spending 135% of what’s required. Similar-sized districts in our area range from 126% to 142%, and the average across all school districts in the state is 125%. More information can be found at https://rebrand.ly/StateNSS.
The Amherst and regional schools invest $36 million in total for all staff pay. Of that, about $30 million is invested to pay teachers and paraeducators. The districts spend a total of $3.8 million for district and school administration staff, including for some clerical staff who are members of the APEA. There isn’t room in these budgets to cover a nearly $2 million pay increase for teachers and paraeducators. And, reducing or eliminating administrative staff wouldn’t reduce the administrative work, such as accounting, enrollment, IT, HR, state and federal reporting and more, that are needed to run our schools. The necessary administrative work would have to shift to remaining staff, primarily teachers.
There aren’t options to get more funding for the current fiscal year since budgets are already in place. The schools already are using one-time federal COVID funds (ESSER) to support this year’s budgets ($294,000 in Amherst and $191,000 in the region) and will use remaining ESSER funds next year ($565,000 in Amherst and $1 million in the region) to avoid making more cuts this year than are being proposed. (Using these one-time funds to support next year’s operating budgets only means we delay likely cuts to future year budgets.)
For next fiscal year and beyond, advocating at the state level for better funding of public schools is needed. Reforming how charter schools are funded is critical — our districts spend more than $3 million per year for charter school tuition. We also need the state to increase its “minimum per pupil aid,” and to fully fund things such as transportation and other line items that are committed but subject to the funding decisions of the Legislature.Allison McDonald is chairwoman of the Amherst School Committee and serves on the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee.