Amherst regional district towns seek middle ground on school increase

Amherst Regional High School.

Amherst Regional High School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 04-23-2024 10:44 AM

AMHERST — Scaled-back increases in the assessments for the Amherst Regional Schools are expected to be considered by residents when Shutesbury and Leverett hold their annual Town Meetings on Saturday.

But the compromise 6% increases over the current year’s assessments being sought for fiscal year 2025, developed during a four-towns meeting last weekend, could necessitate about $460,000 in additional cuts to the proposed $35.75 million regional budget, which is already $747,896 below providing the same level of services as this year at the middle and high schools.

The Regional School Committee meets Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the high school library to discuss whether to support a smaller budget than the one it approved, by an 8-1 vote in March, that relies on 8.2% increases in the assessments for all four member towns, including Amherst and Pelham. Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter is expected to present information about how a smaller budget would affect the schools next fall.

Committee members representing the four towns bypassed financial guidance developed at earlier four-town meetings and added nearly $1 million more to the original $34.81 million spending plan. The revised budget is designed to prevent 15 student-facing positions from being cut, including both teachers and paraprofessionals, and preserve the world languages program at the middle school, as well as the restorative justice program at both schools.

The proposal for the 6% assessment increase came from Shutesbury officials, while Leverett officials suggested a 6.1% increase.

“Our perspective is we don’t think 8.2% is something we can support,” Ajay Khashu, who chairs the Shutesbury Finance Committee, said in an interview Monday.

Under the 8.2% assessment increase, Shutesbury would pay $1.69 million next year, or $127,959 more than this year’s $1.56 million assessment. That is also $88,267 above the original guidance of a 2.52% increase. Khashu said cash reserves would likely have been needed to fund the difference.

Khashu said the compromise balances the town’s need to be fiscally responsible while also recognizing the need to ramp up support for regional schools, especially as the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money that has helped support the schools ends.

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“Our hope is that the other three communities will support that level of increase,” Khashu said.

Pelham Town Meeting will vote on the assessment and budget May 11, while the Amherst Town Council is supposed to have the regional budget on its agenda for a possible vote on April 29.

Based on the higher, approved budget calling for an 8.2% increase in member towns’ contributions, the assessment for Amherst would be $19.23 million, $1.46 million more than this year’s $17.77 million assessment, and $746,400 above guidance; for Pelham, the assessment would be $1.09 million, $82,441 more than this year’s $1.01 million assessment, and $42,226 above guidance; for Leverett, the assessment would be $1.67 million, $126,361 more than this year’s $1.54 million assessment, and $64,721 above guidance. Leverett Town Meeting has a separate warrant article to consider spending up to $64,721, a number that could be reduced to meet the 6% compromise.

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