Preschool, culinary arts at Amherst Regional High School on chopping block

  • Amherst-Pelham Regional High School Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2018 10:50:30 PM

AMHERST — A culinary arts program and a long-running preschool housed at Amherst Regional High School will come to an end this spring as part of more than $1 million in budget cuts.

With the two programs going away, their rooms in a wing of the building near the gymnasium, along with several other classrooms, will be converted into space for the Summit Academy, the alternative education program, formerly known as the South East Campus. The campus for many years has had its own site on South East Street in South Amherst.

The cuts are needed to bring forward a $31.8 million budget plan affordable to the four towns that make up the regional school district. The proposal represents a $497,451, or 1.6 percent increase, well short of the $32.97 million school officials said is needed to provide level services. The increase is largely because of an increase in health insurance costs that exceeds 20 percent, or around $1 million.

This coinciding sharp increase in health insurance, which is also affecting the town and library budgets, prompted school officials to make close to $1.16 million in reductions.

Sean Mangano, finance director for the schools, told the Select Board last week that efforts were made to keep all cuts as far away from the classrooms and student education as possible, ensuring that students would continue to get an excellent education in the district by offering small class sizes and numerous electives.

In the budget proposal document, school officials write: “In spite of the significant financial challenge created by rising health insurance costs, the FY 2019 budget proposal is designed to maintain academic excellence, invest strategically in areas that improve outcomes for all students, and be fiscally responsible and responsive to feedback from member towns.”

Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima said he appreciates the leadership of Mangano, Superintendent Michael Morris and High School Principal Mark Jackson working hard to avoid devastating cuts that would impact education.

“We were able to avoid the worst of them,” Nakajima said.

Even though almost nine positions are eliminated, most are away from learning, and include reductions to hours for custodians and lunch staff.

Nakajima said the move of the Summit Academy, which is described as a special education public day school with a therapeutic learning environment, has elicited some concern from the community.

But he points out that the rational for moving the school is strictly financial, and not because the services provided are inadequate.

To make the move work, Summit Academy will be completely separated from the rest of the high school.

“It will have its own separate entrance. It will be separated physically,” Nakajima said.

The rearranging of the space in the high school will happen over the summer and be coordinated by facilities director James McPherson.

Nakajima said Summit Academy principal David Slovin has done work to make sure the colocation of the school will benefit its students.

The current Summit Academy building and campus is owned by the town, so its future use would be determined by town officials.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said a disposition policy is now in place that outlines the steps that could be taken, but no plans have been unveiled and no conversations have yet occurred. A July 2016 report to the town manager gives advice on what could happen: “In the event of this building being vacated by the school district due to school consolidation this building could be used for housing or any other municipal use. Alternatively, the building could be demolished and the land could be open space.”

Culinary arts, preschool

Neither the culinary program nor The Preschool at ARHS, as it is known, are credit-bearing programs, meaning that students don’t have the ability to get certifications that can assist them in pursuing careers in food service or early childhood education.

“This was nice to have, but it didn’t actually fit in the way other programs do,” Nakajima said.

Between the two, there will be an estimated $100,000 in savings by eliminating the three positions, including a culinary teacher and the lead preschool teacher and preschool paraprofessional.

Select Board member Alisa Brewer said at the budget presentation last week that she would have preferred to see the schools avoid eliminating programs, though understands it was unavoidable.

“These are painful. These are not good cuts,” Brewer said.

The Preschool at ARHS was considered for elimination in 2009 when deep cuts were proposed. At that time, 19 preschoolers were enrolled, and was aimed to be self-sustaining based on fees charged to families.

Even at that time, though, it was noted the program was not part of the high school’s core academic mission, even as participants described it as being beloved by generations of families and a well-kept secret.

Earlier in its history, likely in the early 1970s, the preschool had been known as the Child Study Nursery School, and Amherst Regional was considered one of the first schools in the state to offer high school students practical experiences with young children.

Throughout the years, students would spend time alongside the preschoolers, typically one period per day, assisting the staff.

School budget documents describe the laboratory preschool as serving students ages 3 to 5 and providing the opportunity for high school students to intern through the Experiential Education program.

Budget additions

Meanwhile, one of the most prominent additions to the regional budget is adding $12,000 to add staffing to the Chinese language program, so that world language instruction can be done full time.

The budget also adds a special education teacher for math and science at the high school and a special education paraeducator at middle school, at a total cost of $90,000.

Nakajima said there was little feedback on most of the budget items.

But during the March 12 hearing, when the committee recommended it 8-0, Nakajima said the concern was focused on a possible exclusive arrangement where students interested in vocational education would be obligated to attend Smith Vocational and Agricultural School in Northampton, and not be able to go to Franklin Technical School in Turners Falls.

Several parents and students, primarily from Shutesbury and Leverett, spoke at that meeting and the School Committee voted not to have the exclusive arrangement with Smith.


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