Parents, students denounce school budget cuts in Amherst

  • Children board buses at Wildwood School in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/11/2021 11:29:34 AM

AMHERST — Rather than cutting nearly 15 positions from the secondary schools, town officials should reduce Amherst’s public safety budget and compel higher education institutions to assist with funding the public schools, according to residents who spoke to the Town Council last week.

At a budget hearing on the $31.9 million proposed fiscal year 2022 budget for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools, councilors were informed about concerns with a budget proposal that is $1.2 million below providing level services at the high school and middle school.

“You're defunding education if you make any of these cuts,” said Lydia Irons of Jeffrey Lane.

Irons, a founder of the Defund 413 Amherst chapter that has sought to reexamine police spending, said offering fewer services to students poses long-term risks to the community, explaining that there is a correlation between cuts to school spending and a rise in violent crimes and aggravated assaults.

The concern about the public safety budget was echoed by Marisol Pierce Bonifaz, a North Amherst resident and Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Public Charter School student, who read from a letter she wrote to the Gazette: “Please cut the Amherst Police Department budget instead of drastically cutting the ARHS budget. The result of this budget cut to our schools would be all too dire.”

Margaret Sawyer, a parent of two elementary children, said maintaining staff is vital. “I share the concern that the police budget is too high,” Sawyer said.

Meantime, Vincent O'Connor of Summer Street said the town needs to approach Amherst College, and possibly the University of Massachusetts, about the possibility of providing hundreds of thousands of dollars for the school system.

The comments were similar to those heard by the Regional School Committee in February, when a number of recent high school graduates, and other residents, submitted mostly written comments that supported taking money from one municipal budget and applying it to the schools.

The Town Council referred the budget, $231,754 less than the $32.1 million being spent this year, to the Finance Committee, where it will be reviewed. The council is expected to adopt the spending in advance of annual Town Meetings in Shutesbury, Leverett and Pelham, where voters will continue the assessments to pay for the budget.

Amherst's assessment is going up by $344,663, or 2.1%, from $16.4 million to $16.75 million, meeting the guidelines set by the Finance Committee.

The assessments are calculated based on what is known as the 65% method, a blend of the four-town regional agreement and the state method, and using a five-year average of the minimum contributions each town is obligated to make and per-pupil expenses.

Pelham is facing the steepest rise, a 4.1% jump, or $37,591, from $891,934 to $929,525.

Shutesbury and Leverett, meantime, will see assessments fall. Shutesbury's is going from $1.68 million to $1.61 million, a 3.86%, or $64,736, decline and Leverett’s is dropping by .49%, or $7,202, from $1.473 million to $1.466 million.

Eliminated positions will mean classes will be larger at the middle school due to the reduction of a half team. An art teacher position will be left vacant so only one remains at the middle school, and a full-time position that has done outreach to underserved youth at the Amherst Family Center is also remaining unfilled. Three paraprofessionals at high school will be cut.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said she doesn’t want to see the art teacher go, noting that in recovering from the pandemic year students should do more projects involving hands and manipulating materials

Julian Hynes, a student at the high school, said he worries about his peers with the budget plan.

“I have many friends who will be going into the high school after more than a year of remote learning who will need support. Any more support that is needed comes along with more funding, not less," Hynes said.

Allegra Clark of Cherry Lane said the schools will need to support children and the mental health impacts on them from being at home during the pandemic.

“I fundamentally oppose any cuts to the school budget, especially cuts that will support mental health programs and the arts,” Clark said.

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


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