My Goal in Blogging

I started this blog in May of 2008, shortly after my election to the School Committee, because I believed it was very important to both provide the community with an opportunity to share their thoughts with me about our schools and to provide me with an opportunity for me to ask questions and share my thoughts and reasoning. I have found the conversation generated on my blog to be extremely helpful to me in learning community views on many issues. I appreciate the many people who have taken the time to share their views. I believe it is critical to the quality of our public schools to have a public discussion of our community priorities, concerns and aspirations.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Amherst schools brace for budget crunch

Hampshire Gazette
By NICK GRABBE
Friday, November 13, 2009

AMHERST - Students in grades 7 through 12 could see much higher athletics fees and the elimination of classes with enrollments under 15 next year, because of the need for massive budget cuts.

World languages, arts and music, libraries, counseling, elective courses and administrative positions could all be on the chopping block, according to School Committee members. An increase in average class size is an option.

On Tuesday, the Regional School Committee will start the process of setting its spending priorities in anticipation of another painful budget season. The Amherst School Committee will start its discussion of next year's elementary budget at its Nov. 24 meeting.

If regional school staffing and programs are kept the same as this year, there will be a shortfall of between $2.2 million and $3.3 million, said Rob Detweiler, the schools' finance director. These figures assume a 10 percent decline in state aid, a 20 percent cut in regional transportation reimbursement, and no override of Proposition 2½, he said.

"You better believe everyone in management is thinking (about) what we can do without," Detweiler said. "Everything will be looked at because we have to."

The current year's budget for the Amherst and regional schools has the equivalent of 55 fewer full-time positions than last year. In considering next year's spending plan, the schools must consider cuts that "go beyond trimming here and there," said committee member Debbie Gould, of Pelham.

The committee is accepting comments from residents about what the funding priorities should be. It is also seeking about seven citizen volunteers for a budget advisory committee, which will meet until mid-January.

"We don't want to be caught thinking about this too late," said Andy Churchill, Amherst School Committee chairman.

The options for trimming expenses are limited because 80 percent of the budgets go to personnel, and these costs are subject to union contracts.

School Committee member Catherine Sanderson said she does not favor asking the teachers union to consider renegotiating its contract, though she described it as "not sustainable." The union is in the second year of a three-year contract that will provide 3 percent cost-of-living raises next year, and about half the teachers will also receive 4 percent "step" increases.

Sanderson favored scrutiny of the $5 million regional special education budget, reconsideration of the trimester system, and a hard look at "expensive electives," intervention support and reading instruction.

"We're in a kind of crisis," she said. "Nothing should be off the table."

The athletics option that's being discussed would make the program self-supporting by increasing fees and creating booster clubs. Fees have already gone up, and if they are raised again, some families won't be able to afford them, Gould said. "We don't want it to be just for the rich," she said.

Gould also expressed concern that more staffing and program cuts could spur more parents to send their children to charter schools, private schools or schools in other towns, thus causing a decline in state aid.

Health insurance for employees, which has been a budget-buster in the past, is increasing at only 6 percent, but the recession is causing more people to sign up for benefits, perhaps because their spouses have lost jobs, Detweiler said.

In addition to operating expenses, the regional schools have a long list of building and grounds maintenance projects, estimated to cost $3.8 million over the next five years. An expense of $92,000 for repointing leaking capstones and caulking windows and doors at the middle school is listed as a "very high" priority for next year.

The Select Board expects to schedule a vote to override Proposition 2½, the state law limiting property tax hikes, on March 23, the same day as the town election. Approval of a $4 million override, the current estimate of the townwide shortfall, would increase the average Amherst tax bill by 11 percent, from $5,611 to $6,228, according to the Finance Committee.

The committee has asked school officials to prepare three budgets by Jan. 18. The first is a "level services" budget, which Detweiler said would increase by about 7 percent. The second is a "level funding" plan with the budget frozen at the current year's level, and the third would cut funding by 3 percent.

The regional school budget must be approved by three out of the four towns - Amherst, Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury - so their different needs must be considered. On Dec. 12, representatives of the four towns will confer at 9 a.m. in the middle school library.

"We have to confront this head-on," said School Committee member Irv Rhodes. "We can't hide from it for long."

Nick Grabbe can be reached at ngrabbe@gazettenet.com.

103 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about athletics becoming just for the rich if fees are increased. This is Amherst so there will always be a substantial reduction in fees for free/reduced lunch. There will also always be rich parents who can afford to pay the fees, whatever they are. I worry about the middle-class parents who not only will most likely be paying even more tax dollars toward property tax after an override but who also will have to shoulder the burden of full athletic fees for their children.

Anonymous said...

We are a single income family and my husband's company is having forced furoughs and threat of layoffs. He had no pay increase last 2 years. We are getting less income and with override, tax, medical insurance and other living expenses increase, we are concerned that as middle income family, we are facing major issues. As much I understand the need for the override, not everone can afford it.

Anonymous said...

Being retired and on a diminishing fixed income, we cannot afford it either. It is a struggle just to keep the family home.

Anonymous said...

So, we're supposed to let the schools go down the toilet??

Anonymous said...

Let's guess, keep my house, or pass an override?? what do you think? A roof over my head trumps the schools.

Anonymous said...

"Keep a roof over my head trumps the schools".

Say it, and nobody challenges you.

Some people who are saying it are telling the truth, and some people are lying.

We really have to get honest with ourselves and our neighbors about how much we are paying in taxes: state, federal, property, sales.

Is it more than our parents paid, adjusted for inflation or as a percentage of our incomes? Is it?
Do you know?

Since 1980, we've been trained to whine about taxation. And nobody challenges it. Because it's supposedly personal. But, when it strangles the community to death, it's not.

I don't know when we're going to cut the crap about the tax burden.

Anonymous said...

I drive through Amherst Woods, and look at those monster homes, and I think: there are some folks here who are in way over their heads.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like penis...uh, I mean house envy.

Rick said...

I agree with Anon 11:48. Since 2002 there have been both state and federal income tax cuts. Locally Amherst property taxes have risen by 2.5% except for the 2004 override year, which if you take that into account, property taxes have risen by around 3.5% since 2002 (that’s an average, your property taxes may vary depending on whether you own residential or commercial property and depending what revaluations did to your property values versus the average*).

So overall:

• Federal income taxes have gone down.
• State income taxes have gone down.
• Property taxes have gone up by around 3.5%.

What the overall net of those three are obviously depends on the individual family. What the average effect has been I don’t know – would be nice to find out. But at any rate, whatever it is, it’s not much of an increase in overall taxation – possibly it has been a decrease.

Massachusetts ranks 23 in state and local tax burden: 9.5% of average income of $56,661 - US average is 9.7%. (http://www.taxfoundation.org/taxdata/show/460.html )

---

* People get confused by this all the time but remember that if the value of your home goes up when a revaluation occurs, that does NOT mean your tax goes up – at least not more than 2.5%. If you did no improvement to your home (which would raise the true value) then your property tax should go up by just 2.5%. But that’s on average. Your neighbor may get a favorable revaluation and so his/her tax will go up by less than 2.5%, or you may get an unfavorable one and your tax will go up by more than 2.5%.

Anonymous said...

When it comes to taxation, we lie to ourselves.

And certain politicians of the late twentieth century understood that.

And Prop 2.5 has created the biggest lie of all, which has since become conventional wisdom, that a 2.5% cap on property taxes is some sort of reasonable ceiling. It's nothing but an arbitrary number.

When we start talking about overrides, let's remember: we're not just talking about FY11, but probably FY12 and FY13, too. And then let's remember how quickly the fiscal imperatives changed THIS year, from closing MM being out of the question to being the necessary thing to do.

In other words, you could starve this government but good, without any immediate recourse to its next meal. Better think about this before you go into the punishment mode.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Rick, you are right that other taxes may have gone down in recent years, but others, like sales tax, have increased recently. In addition, the property tax rate in Amherst is higher than that of most of our surrounding towns. This makes it difficult for many people to justify spending even more for property taxes in Amherst.

Even Dr. Atkinson, in her impassioned speech to Town Meeting about the potential creation of a new category of medical office, mentioned that she could get a lot more office for a lot less money in Hadley. I think that is something that many people think about when they head to the polls to vote on an override.

Rick said...

True, MA sales tax increased this year. Still, not clear that overall taxation has grown that much – pretty sure it’s grown quite a bit less than inflation – though none of us has that data. The site I referenced above shows overall state & local taxation rate of 9.5% of income, down from 9.9% in 2005, but about the same as it was in 1999 (9.6%). And federal taxes have dropped.

”...the property tax rate in Amherst is higher than that of most of our surrounding towns.” Yup, that’s because Amherst has 10% commercial property, while Hadley has 30% and Northampton 20%. Whether residents of Amherst think it's worth the extra cost to live here because it’s less commercial, I don’t know – probably not. Efforts to boost commercial property tax revenue in town are trying to help, but it will be a while because we get up to near the 20% level.

But I have always viewed this to be a logical argument: State income tax cuts resulted in state aid to towns being cut so why not “replace” the lost income tax revenue with property tax revenue? (The increase in sales tax offsets this argument – by how much I am not sure.)

It would be way better to increase state income taxes back to where it was, and then increase state aid, but that doesn’t seem likely.

Rick said...

Typo:
"because we get up to near the 20% level."
should be
"before we get up to near the 20% level."

looking at taxes another way said...

Amherst has a lot of business properties that are characterized as residential properties. The business of Amherst is educating AND housing students. 45% of our taxbase is from the houses rented to them.

For its taxbase, Amherst has 10% in commercial property, 45% in residentiall property owned by landlords, and 45% in residential property owned by homeowners.

Amherst should consider raising taxes on rental properties owned by landlords since these houses are a form of business (not facing any particular business decline). Landlords can take this tax increase as a an expense, unlike a homeowner.

Rick said...

Hmmm... that sounds like a pretty good idea. But are you sure this is correct as it seems high to me: ”45% in residential property owned by landlords”?

Related to this, I believe the commercial tax rate and the residential tax rates are the same in Amherst ($15.82). I believe same is true for Hadley and Noho, but not sure. In Newport, RI where I am originally from and still own property, the commercial property tax rate is $12.93 versus $8.67 for residential – there is a LOT of commercial in Newport. I suppose raising the commercial rate is anti-business, and so won’t fly, but...

Anonymous said...

Rick, "looking at taxes" has a good idea, but you are right that we have the same tax rate for residential and commercial property. But what if Amherst didn't reclassify rental properties as commercial but rather decided to split their residential rate? Have one rate (lower) for owner-occupied and one rate (higher) for non-owner occupied?

Does anyone know? Are the large apartment complexes we currently have taxed as commercial or residential?

And to verify the numbers posted before, according to the US Census Bureau (data from 2006-2008), only 48.3% of Amherst's housing units are owner-occupied, compared to 51.7% renter-occupied. This could definitely be the way to solve our budget problem. Especially with UMass wanting to expand! The market is there.

Rick said...

So, rather than do an override (or in additional to a small one) one could simply raise the property tax rate on non-owner-occupied residential property. I have never heard anyone talk about changing from our single rate system, but I believe it is allowed. See section 2.3 of this:
http://www.mass.gov/Ador/docs/dls/publ/101Handbook/Chapter5.pdf

But I am way over my head here; no idea what the pros can cons are of doing this. Obviously landlords would scream; though somebody is going to scream no matter what.

Whatever happens I hope it’s a solution where everyone gives a bit, from property owners accepting some form of override, to town and school employees accepting less of a pay increase, to some (more) cuts in actual town services. It almost seems like the Select Board should put a proposal on the table for discussion that has everyone giving a little. You need leadership to bring all these different parties together.

Anonymous said...

The Select Board does hold an annual reclassification hearing (probably coming up in the next month or so).

Every year commercial and residential are kept at the same level so as not to discourage new business.

Every year rental and owner-occupied are kept at the same level to avoid having landlords pass the tax increase on to tenants in the form of higher rents. And as a previous commenter noted, there are lots of renters in town (who could potentially be mobilized to vote their pocketbooks).

Anonymous said...

Rick,

I agree with your point about the tax burden. I do not agree with what I think that you're saying that Amherst residents would tolerate increases in commercial development to build our tax base. Wait'll Town Meeting gets into that five-story building proposed for downtown.

At some point, we are consenting to what we get. We have a Town Meeting in which at least 1/3 or more of the body is dead-set against any change in the Town. Look at the vote on the incredibly modest zoning change on medical offices.

Let's face it: residents in Amherst know, either instinctively or otherwise, that Town Meeting is essentially a status quo machine, that preserves the status quo in town in all of its details. The foreign policy resolutions are a diversion from a system of government that residents basically like BECAUSE they can sleep through it with the assurance that there will be no jarring changes. A large number of residents are first-generation residents here: they shopped for this town with its particular allocation of development and open space, they could have lived in Northampton, they're here for a reason and they don't want it to change.

This is why the Mark's Meadow episode (and it's still just an episode of cost-cutting) is so extraordinary.

Rich Morse

Rick said...

Hi Rich,

Oh I wasn’t saying this “Amherst residents would tolerate increases in commercial development”. I know well how tough that is. Maybe my “it will be a while before we get up to near the 20% level.” made it sound that way. I know that unless attitudes change, we’ll never get anywhere near to 20%.

For those who don’t know, the modest zoning change Rich refers to only passed by one vote. (Those kinds of zoning changes require a 2/3’s vote).

Rick said...

I was looking at the teacher contract trying to figure it out:

http://www.arps.org/files/UnitAContract.pdf

There are salary charts for each year of the contract (the last year being 2010-2011). See pages 29-35 for the charts. I you take a teacher at 7/7 (roughly the middle) on the 2009-2010 chart ($53,129) and compare to 7/7 on the 2010-2011 chart ($54,723) that is a 3% increase, so I guess 3% is what COLA is for 2010-2011. That teacher at step 7 would presumably move up a step in 2010-2011 to step 8 ($56,649) for a total increase of 6.6%.

I believe the steps are not really an issue because in theory they should be a wash – at least in a steady-state situation – because although each year teachers get step increases, teachers at the higher end of the pay scale retire, and new teachers get hired at the lower end of the scale – which should balance off the step increases. I think if you do the math, it’s a wash. However, it would not be a wash if younger teachers get laid off and older teachers stay on and don’t retire. If we see that preliminary budgets for next year shows payroll costs going up by more than 3% (I think they will) then I bet that is the reason. (Note that after 16 years, apparently teachers don’t get step increases but do get longevity bumps every 5 years: $1,000 15YRS, $1,250 20YRS, $1,500 25YRS, $2,500 30YRS)

But the COLA of 3% really does seem a lot for these economic times. It would be nice to know what the average COLA is for all MA public schools as well as for all MA employees in general to compare with – I bet for all MA employees of all types it’s a lot less than 3% (but who knows maybe not, anyone know where that info can be found?). We hear a lot about UMass employees not getting any COLA at all (BTW is that true?).

This is a contract and we have to live with it. However, in the “everyone gives a little” scenario, would the teachers open the contract and change it to perhaps 1.5% for 2010-2011 and 1.5% for 2011-2012 (or 2%/2%)? …but only in exchange for the town passing an override – thus adding the “if you give, I will give” to the equation.

I suppose there are reasons why this would not fly, but sure would be nice.

Just to throw something else in: we perhaps have no idea how bad things can get. For example, in East Providence, RI, the SC there voted to unilaterally cut all teacher pay (the contract had run out) – not decrease COLA but cut actual pay. They simply ran out of money and felt they had no choice. (http://bit.ly/1xc4wj)

I hope we do something smart before hitting that kind of a wall.

Caren Rotello said...

Rick,
Since you asked.

UMass faculty and librarians have not had a raise since 2007, and our 2009-2012 contract has not been funded. That means no COLA, of course. Even if the contract were funded, the COLA that was agreed to was less than 3% (1.5% for 2009, which, again, was not awarded, 2.25% for the other years). Also, faculty do not ever get step increases (members of other UMass unions do). You can see the details at the Massachusetts Society of Professors web-page.

Oh, and UMass employees have seen a real cut to pay this year, given that there were no raises (and no COLA) but we must now pay a higher percentage of our health care costs.

looking at taxes differently said...

The point remains that 55% of the properties in town are a form of business. (Apt complexes are considered commercial properties by the way.) So Amherst's tax situation is not out of whack since 55% of it's property tax base is from business -- not the 10% that is often spouted.

Who cares if the landlords scream? They are paying taxes out of pre-tax income they get from the rental property itself. They also get to depreciate their rental properties, even if they increase in value.

None of these tax benefits are available to homeowners. Residential owners earn regular income, pay 30% or so in federal and state taxes, then paying property taxes out of post-tax income.

Presumbaly landlords own their rental properties because they make money on them -- and they are. A 500 or 800 dollar tax increase may be passed along to a group of renters adding $45 to $65 to a month's rent but probably not. Rents are tied to the general rental market in the area and lately, those rents aren't going up.

Lot's of places charge more property taxes for rental properties. We should look at it here.

Joel said...

Caren's completely right about the situation at UMass. There are a lot of faculty who have seen their real incomes decline. The public school teachers in Amherst have received wage increases and good for them, but it's tough asking folks with declining incomes to pay more for the schools in that environment.

Moreover, and this isn't about the average teacher in Amherst who does a terrific job, a lot of parents are wary of supporting an override because we've seen how badly -- and in some cases illegally -- the schools have used our money.

The new SC and superintendent are doing a lot to restore my trust, but I'm still not at all happy about 9th grade environmental studies in place of biology or physics. I don't really trust a school system that openly defies state law by refusing to have the Pledge said in the morning, and I'm not terribly happy about so many teachers arguing in the face of legal rulings, expert opinion, and state guidelines that we should keep ethnic and language clusters, which do cost extra money as well as undermine the purpose of public schooling.

Frankly, the town is in no mood to support the override for a lot of reasons. I have two kids in elementary school and I'm not convinced my money will be wisely spent.

An override is an additional burden on many of us who work at UMass and the colleges. Moreover, it isn't at all clear that it would be money well spent.

Anonymous said...

I think it's time for the business community to step up and support the schools. Where is the leadership from the business community?

Anonymous said...

Employees at Amherst College, Smith, and Mount Holyoke did not get raises last year (although the cost of health insurance went up) and are most likely not getting them again this year. Amherst College is already talking layoffs.

Rick said...

looking at taxes differently: good points.

Joel: I hear what you’re saying. But I worry that while there are surely examples where the SC/administration has not spent money wisely, or made other bad decisions, that it may be exaggerated. I suggest that we should try to be scientific about it and see exactly what evidence there is. Here’s a list of things you mentioned and some other things:

1. 9th grade environmental studies in place of biology – I really like the “Ecology and Environmental Science 9” course as a replacement to Earth Science, but I agree it’s bad not to allow Biology to be taken instead – only because it messes up being able to take AP courses in other science later. There needs to be some kind for solution to that.

2. Pledge of Allegiance – I agree. Don’t know why it’s not done – should be.

3. Ethnic and language clusters – honestly I see that as a mixture of both confusion (as to what is legal) and simply a disagreement on the best way to teach ELL. They may be wrong but they have a point of view that is just different, and so I don’t fault that.

Other:

4. Payroll – was it a mistake to put the 3% COLA into the contract? Maybe. It’s not 3% for all years of the contract (its less for some) and I’m not sure that this contract may have been negotiated before this recession hit full swing. Anyhow, assuming it was a mistake, how much of one is hard to say. The numbers for this are large. This is really rough, but if 80% of the budget is payroll, that would be 80% x $48 million = $38 million (rounded) – so every 1% of COLA is about $380,000

5. Superintendent pay – none of us knows how that negotiation went. Could he have been had for less? Really it’s bad to guess on this, but perhaps just one year’s of $15k moving expenses, not two, and perhaps $15k less on the salary – so $30,000? Who knows.

6. The portables – they cost $213,738.04. Say their useful life is 10 years, so that’s roughly $22,000/year. They ended up being basically not useful at all, so the cost will be more like $213,738.04 less whatever we get for selling them. We’ve been over this on another blog post.

For me, the above just does not add up to enough evidence to be completely untrusting of the SC and school administration. Rather, I view this as a simply a list of things to fix and do better on in the future – as well as other things not on the above list.

I think ARPS is changing in a good direction and I’d hate to hit them while they are in the process of improving.

Joel said...

Rick,

Agreed that the schools are moving in the right direction, so that's a positive.

On the clusters, you wrote:

"honestly I see that as a mixture of both confusion (as to what is legal) and simply a disagreement on the best way to teach ELL. They may be wrong but they have a point of view that is just different, and so I don’t fault that."

But, the "disagreement" is essentially between a handful of people in Amherst -- in the schools and in the UMASS School of Ed -- and just about everyone else in the country. I posted months ago something from Latino ELL experts at UC Berkeley (a top tier school known for progressive politics) that marveled at Amherst's practice of segregating poor, Spanish-speaking kids.

There are lots of points of view. They aren't all equal or equally efficacious in terms of educating our kids. Once we embrace not only best practices, but also state guidelines (the clusters are against state guidelines -- I guess once again we know best here in Amherst), then I'll be a bit more comfortable with the direction of things.

There's positive momentum, but I'm still waiting to see things really turn for the better.

Rick said...

Yes probably it is relatively "a handful of people" but as far as I could tell, having attended all the forums about it, roughly 90% of the people speaking out to keep clusters were parents, not people inside of ARPS (yes some teachers were). The SC/administration was unanimous in agreement on ending clusters - to me that's what matters.

I understand this "I'm still waiting to see things really turn for the better", but please try to be open minded when budget numbers come out and we see what the damage might be. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"The new SC and superintendent are doing a lot to restore my trust,...."

Gee, I dunno. I've always believed that actions speak louder .... Still waiting on the actions part. Guess we'll see but I'm very tired of all the finger pointing at teacher's salary, benefits, etc. and not one whisper about the police or fire department. And of course,the DPW.
Off limits?

Rick said...

"...not one whisper about the police or fire department. And of course,the DPW." That's a mistake; yes of course any talk about contracts and COLA should apply to all town employees, not just school employees.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Rick.

Anonymous said...

This business of looking at the plight of university and college employees and faculty versus the plight of public school teachers is a comparison screaming for greater context.

As a state employee who hasn't seen a raise in awhile and a former private school teacher, I think it'll be a cold day in hell before I begrudge teachers in town their pay raises. The work, when done properly, is exhausting.

I understand that this blog is the home of the override skeptics. That's why I appreciate Rick Hood's presence on here.

But I think that the big picture is still getting lost, even in the tidal wave of words on this site. In the absence of an override vote in 2010 that includes the schools, I believe that you can prepare for the next fiscal confrontation in the region: between the alternatives of cuts in high school athletics and cuts in music and the arts, just about FY12 or 13. The Mark's Meadow closing will be a fond memory of relative civility compared to that death struggle.

Let's be honest with ourselves: all human organizations waste resources, in the private sector and in the public, in churches and in families. So let's be fair with the schools and not get too self-righteous, or we will find ourselves in a fine mess in a year or so, with members of the community pitted even more ferociously against each other.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Is it time yet to talk about how much of our overall schools budget now goes to special education costs, which never shrink but only increase? (Mandated costs, of course.) Every time we cut the budget, those cuts come from the 'regular' education part of the pie ...

Abbie said...

As usual I agree with Mr. Morse,

it seems some folks, like Joel, want to cut off their nose to spite their face. I am going to predict here that the shortfall for level funding next year will be very close to $2 million. How can we meet that? Cutting art and music altogether in all elementary schools I imagine would save around $300K, now toss in a few administrators (who do nothing anyway, right?), finally toss in around 28 teachers. You can maybe do the math- that's about 1 teacher/grade at each elementary school. Is that what you think might teach the administration and the SC to better manage their resources? Do you think our kids will come out with a very good education? So unless there is currently a lot of waste going into the SPED program (above the LEGAL requirements), I don't see where else we could significantly cut other than what I describe above

I understand that those living on the edge right now are scared. I very much doubt, however, that many (some) of those resisting an override (like Joel) are living at the edge. It will become a question of values for a lot of folks in Amherst- education and public safety vs a few luxuries.

Of course I don't relish an increase in our property tax bill but the alternative is unacceptable to me. An tax increase is still much less than a private education...

Joel said...

Abbie,

I have two kids in elementary school. If I have a tough time with the override, how am I capable of paying for private school? I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face, I just want my public schools to be accountable in how they spend an ever increasing share of my tax dollars.

My kids are at Fort River, where until last year the principal *openly* stated that my kids, because they're white and the children of college educated parents, weren't entitled to his time and effort of and that of the teachers at Fort River. That principal wasn't disciplined in any way for that or any other of his many transgressions. So, while I'm happy about the new principal, I'm still very skeptical about our schools.

I want and need the schools to be better. I don't think it's too much to ask in a small town in a democracy that the public schools serve all the children well. And, it isn't too much to ask when your income is declining but you're being asked to pay more in taxes.

I supported the last override, which lost in a good economy. If the schools want this one to pass, then the superintendent, SC, principals, etc. are going to have to demonstrate that they're not going to just waste our money.

Catherine hasn't chimed in here for a while. When she does, she might tell us how much work it was for her to get public data on HS class enrollments. Of course the HS didn't want the town to know how it's spending our money and how many under-enrolled electives it's providing while it's asking us for even more money.

Rick wrote that he used to believe in the Laffer Curve. I never did. I do, however, like one saying from Ronald Reagan, who I otherwise detest. He said, "Trust, but verify."

I don't think that that's too much to ask before I hand over more of my money to the schools. Let's see exactly where it's going before we hand over more. How can anyone be against that in an open society?

Anonymous said...

Right on Joel!!!
Ali

Meg Rosa said...

I believe that making any more cuts out of the schools are going to cause more harm than good. I think the main item that needs to be addressed is health care. This is our highest rising cost year after year, in all town departments. Can the health insurance be opened up for new bids? Is there any other way to help shrink this every growing cost?

We can talk cuts from this dept or that service all day long. But when you look at the budget year after year, it is health care costs that are the fastest growing, taking a bigger and bigger piece of our ever-shrinking pie.

Also, I don't feel that any of us should be judging if anyone could afford an override now or ever. That really isn't for anyone else to decide for someone else. Just my two cents for this evening.

Nina Koch said...

There is a big difference between saying that you disagree with some of a school's practices and saying that a school is spending money irresponsibly.

No matter what we do, there will be some people who disagree with various policies and practices. That doesn't mean we are wasting money.

I'm sure there are some places where efficiency could be improved. But what it boils down to overall is that it costs a lot to run a school system. Everybody I know at school is already working as hard as they can possibly work.

Rick said...

When Reagan said “trust, but verify”, he meant that built into any arms control treaty must be an ability to monitor whether the treaty was being adhered to, not that arms had to be reduced before he would trust.

Applying that analogy to ARPS means this: do we have the oversight in place to monitor whether ARPS is spending money well? I say yes – or very close to it. The SC now has a Budget Subcommittee, and is in the process of forming a Budget Advisory Review Committee (see http://www.arps.org/node/1052).

The missing part is taking what that oversight finds and putting it into a form that the public can easily understand – I know that is coming, from what I have heard.

Rick said...

Health insurance costs have leveled off some in recent years. Here are health insurance numbers from the Regional budget:

2006 $3,086,621
2007 $3,626,699 +17.5%
2008 $3,987,442 +9.9%
2009 $4,249,177 +6.6%
2010 $4,484,672 +5.5%

Sources:
http://www.arps.org/files/RegionalBudgetFY09.pdf
http://www.arps.org/files/RegionalBudgetFY10.pdf

I hear that 2011 is expected to be in the 6% increase range.

Anonymous said...

A person who tells you that he/she can't pay any more in property taxes is a little like the person who tells you he/she's not in love anymore. How do you question it?

But the discussion about trends in the overall tax burden needs to go on. Can you honestly say that you're paying more in all taxes than your parents did (adjusted for inflation, of course)?

This is really about just how much we owe to our community. We've had our income go down in my household, too, but we still live here.

I've concluded that I'm not overtaxed. Remember, folks, 80 (that's eighty) opportunities open up every year for YOU to serve in your town government. WE are the government in this town, not some unseen, distrusted "other". The need for active vigilance goes on, and shouldn't always be done by "somebody else but me".

Rich Morse

Rick said...

” But the discussion about trends in the overall tax burden needs to go on.”

Yes, that is absolutely critical. If one wants to vote against an override, fine, but please do so with the facts in hand about how much you are taxed today compared to 5, 10 and 20 years ago. That information is one of many facts that should be provided to the public well before any vote occurs.

Another Cranky Taxpayer said...

Rick, you are right on about health insurance being brought somewhat under control by our current finance director. Health insurance overall, across all employers, is just going up and I really don't think that it something that the Amherst school system can just get under control to save money, as Meg suggests. Pay increases, however, are something that the SC can work on the next time a contract comes up for negotation. 80% of the cost of our schools is personnel.

I disagree with you, though, when you state: "do we have the oversight in place to monitor whether ARPS is spending money well? I say yes." I say no. My example is the runaway expenses on special education in both our regional and elementary schools. Their budgets continue to increase disproportionately to the increases in overall budgets or the increase in proportion of kids who receive special ed services. We have heard about an external consultant who will be coming in to evaluate our special ed but have seen no evidence of it yet. Special ed continues to increase under the excuse of "mandated services" but I doubt we are really mandated to provide two separate high schools for special ed kids or a padded room for building blocks. When I see changes to special ed services and spending, I will consider voting for an override.

Meanwhile, Rich, many of us continue to live in Amherst even though we cannot afford to (our tax burden might be less than our parents--I don't know--but it is a lot more than our neighbors in nearby towns) because we also cannot sell our houses in this market and having an even higher tax rate isn't going to do anything to attract potential buyers!

Anonymous said...

A split tax rate does not generate more revenue; it just reallocates the burden. The overall levy limit is constrained by 2 1/2. When a split rate is adopted, residential pays a proportionally smaller share and commercial a proportionally larger share (as compared to the pre-split allocation). The pie is cut differently, but it's still the same sized pie. If there was a split rate, though, perhaps a homeowner/voter might be more willing to support an override because the incremental burden on the residential rate would be lessened.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

Rick: I am not really sure if your argument of "look to the past" will seem that relevant when voters go to the polls this March. I still think they are more likely to look around in the present day and say "what am I getting for my higher tax rate here in Amherst? And is it worth it to raise my tax rate even further?"

I also think voters are more likely to ask "what would I GET for the extra $4M I am voting for?" As in, specifically what are they going to get? $1M for resurfacing roads? $1M for Cherry Hill golf course? $1M for lower class sizes at the elementary school? $1M for electives in the high school? That is what I mean. The Facilitation of Community Choices Committee recommended that the town, if/when they did seek and override, use a menu override option so that voters could actually vote for putting money where they wanted it. My worry is that if the ballot reads "$4M to support the operating expenses of the Town of Amherst" or something equally as vague, people (including myself) would be hesitant to vote for it.

Rick said...

Anon 9:59: …though, perhaps a homeowner/voter might be more willing to support an override because the incremental burden on the residential rate would be lessened. Yes, that was the idea – your right of course that just changing rates does nothing.

Alison: Yes there is no question that vagueness is not acceptable. To me, whether or not an override passes will be almost entirely dependent on how well specific information is presented to the public.

Rick said...

Another Cranky Taxpayer: Yes you seem to be correct that Special Education costs have risen at a higher rate that Regular Education costs. In the 2010 budget, there is a payroll and expense line for each of these categories and if you total those and compare 2010 with 2007:

Special Education: +26.35%
Regular Education: +6.97%

Source: http://www.arps.org/files/FY10AmherstBudget.pdf
WARNING: I am not at all sure those two line items cover each category in total.

The way I am looking at all of this is the following:

IF I see REAL intent and action to moving toward controlling costs that may be too high and IF it looks like the cuts are going to be unbearable when the budget gets presented, then I will definitely vote for an override. I don’t need to wait to see results.

There are two IFs above that we don’t know yet. So I am just asking people to be open minded about looking at those when they are available to look at.

On Alison’s point: ARPS challenge is to CLEARLY present the facts on what actions are being taken and what the budget situation is.

Anonymous said...

One earlier post claims that our only choice is between passing an override OR allowing our schools to "go down the toilet." I find this a bit dramatic.

Although I don't believe that school administrators are wantonly wasting money I do think that we can find some areas where savings could and should be achieved:
- special ed audit
- increased SC budget oversight
- examine HS electives, programs
- revisit tri- vs semester
- future salary/benefit negotiation

I attended the recent budget meeting where Mark Jackson discussed the graph showing projected costs through FY14. The top line keeps going up - so even if an override passes, what do we do the following year, and the year after that? We still need to address a structural deficit - which means more cuts need to be made.

Mark Jackson also described yet another untested and unprecedented program where they take the best teacher in a subject and put only 5-7 kids in the class to help get more minority kids doing honors level work. Do we know if this is truly cost effective? I'm not willing (at this time) to allow the ARPS to do experiments. If I decide to pay more, I want results, not experiments.

Another claim that I think is unrealistic is that people could pay more but they are just being stingy. Most people who move to Amherst understand that taxes pay for important services and that education is important and it costs money to have good schools.

However, my family is facing real financial strain that is forcing us to make difficult choices - unfortunately we can't just ask for more money. And given the information that has come out recently about the schools - I don't have confidence in their ability to do things in a cost-effective manner.

The fact that Rick minimizes the missteps of the recent past – many of which had financial consequences – alarms me.

I also think an attitude that prevails in the schools is that there will always be more money because overrides have historically always passed here.

Joel said...

I want to chime in a bit more with the whole Republican notion that our collective tax burdens have declined.

It is true if 1) you are an heir who inherited a lot of money; 2) you receive a great deal of your income through dividends; and 3) if you are in the top 5% of earners nationally. The wage earning middle class has received much less tax relief than is imaged by Republicans and some on this blog, who I think are quite progressive but misinformed.

Taxes are extremely flat now compared to before 1980 and that serves the richest in our society. Indeed, there isn't even a graduated federal income tax after $375k. So, a billionaire pays the same tax rate as a successful two income married couple.

And, remember, the the rates up to and above $375 are only on the portion above the previous floor. Everyone -- billionaires to school teachers -- pay the same rates on the income in the first couple of brackets.

Don't get me started on wage taxes. This seemingly flat tax is actually regressive. The less you make, the higher the rate. I have a higher rate on wage tax taxation than every player in the NBA and every Goldman Sachs partner.

Moreover, the cost of being middle class has risen dramatically since the Reagan revolution. Most people have to save significantly more for retirement because they have defined contribution plans (401K, 403B, etc.) as opposed to defined benefit plans (pensions). Tuition and fees at private and state schools are astronomical. Property taxes are higher because of real estate inflation that far outstripped wage gains. Two people have to work in a household to have the same basic standard of living as households in the 1960s in which only one person worked for a wage. And those are just the basics of how the middle class has seen its standard of living erode during the last 30 years of "lower taxes."

So, please, let's forget the "your taxes are so low now" stuff.

Moreover, I publicly supported the last override and that didn't pass in a much better economy. No matter how I vote this time, I feel confident that most town residents aren't sanguine about their low tax burdens and their ability to pay more for town services and the schools.

Finally, the schools themselves have some responsibility for how many people in town feel about them. There hasn't been a culture of accountability and when some parents challenged policies, they were dismissed or treated in a condescending way or even called racists -- usually by white people with some pretty goofy ideas about education.

As I've repeatedly written, I need the public schools to succeed, I just not convinced that they are.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

I am not going to individually respond to the now 50 comments. But I have been reading them, and will, for whatever it is worth, share my thoughts.

First, I worked hard (and unsuccessfully) for the 2007 override (that is how I met Rick!). I believed at that time that an override was necessary, and I was disappointed it didn't pass. However, I was also told by many people that if it didn't pass, things would get really bad in our schools, and frankly, I didn't see that -- I believe Jere Hochman just reallocated some money, and really everything was precisely the same: we still had 3rd grade instrumental music, only 1 study hall a year at the high school, small class sizes, etc. So, it really seemed to me that we apparently did NOT need an override (at least at the schools level -- am not speaking to town services). Then, after all of this focus on how bad things would be if we didn't pass the override, the SC and Jere Hochman urged Town Meeting just a few months later to buy two portables for MM -- which would INCREASE what we would need to spend because we would need to pay teacher to teach in them. To me, that doesn't make sense, and I frankly have apologized to friends who I pushed to support the 2007 override. What is the point of all this? I'm not blindly supporting an override ever again -- and I am thinking much, much more about whether I will support an override in 2010.

Now, why would I even consider, as a parent with three young kids in our schools and a member of SC, not supporting an override? There are a number of reasons, some of which have been well articulated by others in the discussion over the last few days.

First, I believe that many families are experiencing major financial strain right now. I work for Amherst College, and no faculty members got raises at all last year. My husband is an attorney who works for the state of Massachusetts, and he was asked to take 5 days without pay last year, and will very likely be asked to take some more days without pay in 2010. Our net income has thus decreased. Now, we are a couple with two secure jobs and we are not struggling to make ends meet -- but we are definitely feeling the hit of this income loss -- and I can only imagine that other families are feeling it as much and more than we are. Thus, I don't feel I can go to people and ask for an override unless I'm really, truly convinced that this is what we need right now. I'm not there yet. I could get there by March 23rd, but I'm not there now.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Still more from me:

Second, we can argue on this blog whether we are taxed more than our parents, or whether some people can or can't afford an override, or whether our overall taxes have increased or decreased over the last five years. But the key thing for me -- and I think both Alison and Joel have spoken to this well (and other anonymous posters) -- is whether we believe that voting for an override will improve the quality of our schools (again, I'm just focusing on the schools here -- not fire/police/library). I believe the SC will need to demonstrate what the actual effects will be, and how that money will be spent.

Third, I do agree with an anonymous poster that there are ways in which money could be used more wisely in our schools RIGHT NOW. We gave the teachers the right to choose the HS schedule during the last negotiations -- it costs $250,000 a year to operate trimesters with one study hall more than to operate semesters with one study hall. Our special education budget is through the roof -- I don't know how much of that is legally required, and I don't know how much of that is even about best practices education (the special ed RFP has gone out, but the evaluation won't start until January, most likely). We've seen in the elementary schools that we've operated an expensive (and illegal) clustering program that is not in line with state recommendations of bringing kids up to proficiency in English. We continue to have many HS class sizes that are SMALLER in size than what we have in 4th to 6th grades in our elementary schools ... perhaps some increases in class sizes needs to be considered.

So, here is my goal -- I think the SC and the superintendent need to make every possible budget cut/find real savings that we can. Nothing should be off the table (including examining how many administrators we have, how much we spend on special ed, how we do intervention support, class sizes, music, athletics, and 6 world languages in 7th grade). We need to really evaluate what we are doing now, how we could do it better, and what we lose by making particular cuts. And then the community gets to decide whether an override would in fact improve the quality of the schools for their kids, and should vote accordingly. But I'm not going to champion an override this time, as I did 2 years ago, unless we are really seeing an override as the LAST resort (AFTER finding all cost savings/inefficiencies). I believe that my responsibility as a member of the SC is to use the resources we have (whatever they are) as wisely as possible -- and the voters at the time of an override get to choose whether the schools (town, etc.) get more resources.

Abbie said...

Here is what I don't get from Joel and Catherine, maybe we just aren't communicating. Both Joel and Catherine want to know what MORE we will get from our schools with an override. My view is what LESS we will get without an override. I am not expecting an override to improve the schools over what they are now. I hope that an override could maintain the quality of the schools. Even with an override there would still need to be cuts like those described by Catherine but it seems like the cuts mentioned (sports, music, art) just aren't going to come close to closing the gap. So yes, find all the possible cuts that can be made and examine the SPED programs, but I suspect with even those, there will be a big shortfall.

It seems to me that the elementary schools don't have those things listed to cut (sports, music (tiny), art (tiny)). The only major thing left is SPED (and while I agree it should be examined there are no guarantees that there are savings to be found).


I guess we will just have to wait and see where the chips fall.

Anonymous said...

I have two comments generated by reading Catherine's posting.

1. Someone on this blog posted something in the past few weeks about the process of building the school budget. Instead of looking at the budget we have not and figuring out where to cut, why not build the budget from the bottom up. Figure out what we want and need and build the budget from there. I really like this idea. Is anyone giving serious thought to budget-building in this way, Catherine?

2. On the override - The only way I might possible vote for an override is if they have a menu of choices to pick from. For the schools, I would also want to see that the schools have indeed made as many budget cuts as possible and found as much savings as possible before voting for more money to go to the schools. I also am not convinced right now that an override is the way to go...but I could be convinced if I see responsible leadership in the schools and a real desire to cut as much fat out of the budget as possible.

Joel said...

Abbie,

I totally understand your point, but we were told before that the schools were flat broke when they weren't. And, many of us worry that an override will only empower some in the schools to continue to spend unwisely.

I will support an override if I see tangible evidence that things are changing for the better.

Rick said...

Anon 3:36: #1 – that was me. They discussed that idea some at the last Budget Subcommittee meeting. It’s not something they are doing yet that I know of but perhaps they will.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Abbie - sorry I wasn't clearer -- I do totally see your question, and that to me is the same thing I'm posing: What will the schools look like with or without an override (not what will they look now next year that is BETTER than now with an override). But I still don't know the answer to that. I also think the answer may well be different at the elementary level than at the regional level, so it is really two sets of questions. Closing a school really does help the elementary budget -- so should ending the language/culture clustering. There frankly aren't the equivalent cost-savings to be found at the regional level in terms of structure (e.g., how we provide education -- unless we could go to semesters, but the teachers have voted against that).

Anonymous 3:36 - I agree with both of your points. How would we design schools starting from scratch is an essential question. I also think we need a menu override so that voters can make clear choices. I had very much hoped that an override vote would be postponed until 2011 -- because it would have given our new superintendent a chance to demonstrate real budgeting and making tough choices BEFORE asking voters to support an override. That would have allowed a clearer demonstration of actions, not just words, on the part of the superintendent, which I think would have been helpful in terms of increasing voter confidence in how money is spent.

Joel - well said, and I believe many voters feel the same. Thus, the SC and superintendent need to start showing some action. SOON.

Rick - I believe this approach will be taking place. I agree that it is a good idea.

Meg Rosa said...

Anon 3:36,
I went to a transition meeting for the PGO's and the Superintendent told us that this is how he asked the principal's to create their budgets this year. To start from scratch and put in the services they will need, asking them, what do they want their schools to look like. There will be a lot of changes this coming year in all 3 schools, so this looks like a great way to start the budget process.

I also want to add that they asked all the PGOs to ask for opinions from families about the transition. Tonight we have our PGG meeting and the major item on our agenda is getting families input. I have sent out these questions for people to think about:
-Any suggestions that people may have about where to cut in the budget.
-Any suggestions as to how to support families, children and staff
-Any town-wide events that would be good to do this year and next.
-What are some needs families will have this year and next and what can the PGOs do to help
-Any other thoughts about the transition

We will then pass this information along to the Superintendent's office. They want to hear all of these things now, so they can build plans that are what this town needs. If anyone has any ideas, please pass them along to their PGOs or to the Superintendent's office.

Nina Koch said...

Special education costs are definitely high but if you look at those costs as a percentage of total spending, the percentage has actually decreased since 2001 (at least at the region level):


http://finance1.doe.mass.edu/SchFin/sped/sped_exp_budget.aspx?ID=605

Part of this can be attributed to reduced expenditures on out of district placements. That is the purpose of the alternative programs-- to reduce the out of district tuition costs. People are already looking for ways to save money. Everybody wants that.

People who think there is still fat to cut are kidding themselves. We are already well into bone and even with an override we would have to make further cuts. There is no question that the cuts will have a direct impact on children's education.

It's not like there is some obvious, easy thing to do that will save substantial money while also not hurting too much. For example, switching from trimester to semester only saves money if we go from 13 offerings to 12 offerings. That means one less elective for students to take. For some kids, that is a big loss. And those savings would be somewhat offset by additional purchase of textbooks (for example we would need 50% more Biology books under the semester system). Textbooks are not cheap. (Catherine, I think you got mixed up when you made your statement about saving $250,000 on the schedule switch. We don't save unless we drop an offering.)

Anything we do at this point is going to involve a loss to somebody. People need to think about what kinds of trade-offs they want to make, what they are willing to give up.

jm said...

Why won't the high school principal release the numbers of kids in each class? What could possibly be the reason for witholding this information from anyone, much less a school board member? Isn't this school part of our local government? Couldn't someone make an Open Records request under state law and get this information in 10 days? What's the thinking here?

Is dropping a course with less than 15 kids a hardship? Maybe offer it less often or only if it is filled. My kids have been in elementary classes with 26 kids -- all day with one teacher. What's the thinking here?

Rick said...

Why won't the high school principal release the numbers of kids in each class?

Where does that come from? Who says he’s not releasing this info?

They already are dropping courses that not enough kids sign up for. I think this year the threshold is around 15 – it will move up next year in order to eliminate more courses as part of cutting out more.

Anonymous said...

Again: Thank you, Rick - jm, why the heck are you thinking the principal isn't releasing this?! It's not hard to get!
Meg Rosa - what are PGOs?

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My responses:

Meg - thanks for the update. Sounds like a very useful discussion with the PGOs.

Nina - A few things in response to your post.

First, I am holding in my hand right now a copy of the 2009 approved budget. It states that in 2000, we spent 36% of the regional budget on regular education and 17% on special education. It also states that in 2009, we spent 24% of our budget on regular education and 19% on special education. I find those numbers concerning.

Second, I hear a lot about "we are already cutting into bone" and I just don't see it. Can you describe what the major cuts were in the high school? As I recall, low enrollment classes were cut, the alpine ski team lost funding, and a child studies position was cut (to the director of a preschool at the high school). We did move to two study halls -- but that was the result of the high school teachers selecting to stay on the trimester. I'm not seeing the bone?!? Similarly, at the middle school level, we collapsed VERY low enrollment classes of Russian and German so that two levels are taught at one time. When people say "cutting into bone," I don't think this is what they mean.

My statement about the cost of changing from a trimester to a semester was based entirely on what I heard from Mark Jackson and Miki Gromacki at the June SC meeting. At that meeting, they reported that the cost of moving to one study hall in a trimester compared to a semester is about 5.2 teachers -- or $270,000. That is why I believe Mark Jackson recommended such a move to the high school teachers last spring. Although there are some costs associated (e.g., books), those are one-time costs ... you don't have to buy new books every year in a semester system! But you do, in a trimester system, have to pay 5.2 teachers ($270,000) to move to one study hall compared to in a semester (this was based on a 7 period schedule -- so in a trimester, we now have 13 classes and two study halls, but in a semester, we could have those same 13 academic classes and just one study hall for the SAME money -- meaning kids are in classes more of their day/year).

JM - I do now have the enrollment data, and yes, that enrollment data shows that some classes are being offered to fewer than 15 students (and many to 15 to 20 students). I think increasing class sizes at the high school (in some classes) is certainly something that will need to be seriously considered. That seems to make a lot more sense than adding a THIRD study hall (meaning that kids are spending 20% of their time in the high school in a study hall).

Rick - I asked for the high school enrollment data in June. I received the data in September -- people are noticing that I did ask for it at more than one occasion at SC meetings. In fairness, I do have it now (as do all members of the SC). However, it was interesting to me to note that some other districts (e.g., Newton) regularly publish reports listing enrollment in all classes -- this is on the web! This seems to me like information that should be readily available to the public and posted on our web as a way of demonstrating how we are using our resources.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Anonymous 9:00 - 1. Maybe enrollment data isn't hard for you to get. It was hard for me to get, and I'm on the SC. 2. PGOs are Parent-Guardian Organizations.

Abbie said...

HI Catherine,

I have to ask if that if "in 2000, we spent 36% of the regional budget on regular education and 17% on special education. It also states that in 2009, we spent 24% of our budget on regular education and 19% on special education" what was the other 47% spent on in 2000, and 57% in 2009? If not on education (regular plus SPED), what please? Pension and health ins surely can't add up to those enormous %.

Rick said...

See page 6 of the budget:
http://www.arps.org/files/RegionalBudgetFY09.pdf

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

Abbie - the next biggest chunk at each time was health insurance (7% in 2000, 15% in 2009). Other biggies are transportation (7% in 2000, 5% in 2009), facilities (7% in 2000, 8% in 2009), support services (7% in 2000, 5% in 2009), administration (7% at both times), "other programs" (5% in 2000 and 6% in 2009). Then there are some small (1 to 3%) amounts, such as ELL, subs/temps, information systems, operational.

Rick - thanks for posting that link.

Anonymous said...

For me, it also helps to see the dollar values of what we spent in 2000 vs 2009 on the regional school budget. It gives me another perspective on what we are talking about when we say there was an X% change from 2000-2009 or y% spent on transportation. This is the same info Catherine has posted but in dollars, not percentages.

From 2000 to 2009, the regional school budget went from $18 million to $28 million.

Regular Ed received $6.5 M in 2000 and $6.8 M in 2009 ($285 K increase over 9 years) whereas Special Ed budget went from $3.2 M to $4.9 M ($1.7M increase over 9 years).

Heath Insurance increased from $1.4M to $4.1 M ($2.7M increase).

Sure, some of that increase in insurance is occuring for all towns and states due to general rising costs - but I'm sure a big part of ours is increasing because of all the additional SPED teachers added to the budget!

My vote is to thoroughly look at the major areas of increased cost (SPED, Health insurance) to see if we can't trim back to where we were 10 years ago. It seems crazy to me that regular education has only gotten a 4% increase while SPED has gotten a 54% increase over 9 years.

And Abbie, hope this answers your questions as to how the money is spent on the regional school budget.

There is no way I will vote for an override unless I am sure that the money (if passed) will be spent wisely.

Detailed numbers below - sorry about the lack of formating, but the first number refers to 2000 and the second to 2009 budget.

And here's the link if you want to see for yourself - on page 6 of the document named Regional Budget FY09 on the arps.org website.

http://www.arps.org
/files/
RegionalBudgetFY09.pdf

FY2000 FY2009

Regular Education 6,553,839 6,839,398
English Learner Education 228,922 329,597
Special Education 3,175,869 4,894,743
Subs/Temp
112,413 156,588
Other Programs
930,797 1,684,093
Supp Services
1,290,209 1,342,212
School Admin
828,623 1,252,615
Central Admin
500,258 714,210
Information Systems 179,873 552,086
Facilities
1,306,903 2,170,447
Transp
1,293,985 1,786,986
Health Insurance 1,391,371 4,151,284
Oper & Other
781,759 2,713,380

Anonymous said...

And the summary for the Amherst elementary school budget tells a very similar story.

From 2000 to 2009, the school budget went from $13.7 million to $20.6 million.

Regular Education saw an increase from $5.3 M to $5.8M (for a total increase of $477K over 9 years).

Special Education budget increased from $2.8M to $4.4 M for a total increase of $1.6 M over 9 years).

Health Insurance went from $1.2 M to $3.2 ($2M increase over 9 years).


Despite all the increased expenditure on SPED, I frequently hear complaints from other parents that their kids are not progressing well in the SPED programs.

In 9 years, we have added $6.9 Million to the elementary school budget - and $1.6 M of that increase or 24% of that increase was directed towards SPED.

Detailed numbers...


FY2000 FY2009

Regular Education 5,281,739 5,758,625
English Learner Education 536,549 845,787
Special Education 2,795,094 4,439,862
Subs/Temp 117,428 190,735
Other Programs 10,770 210,663
Supp Services 992,919 1,163,198
School Admin 840,019 960,924
Central Admin 421,356 577,935
Information Systems 180,141 365,181
Facilities 905,547 1,365,181
Transp 185,524 587,652
Health Insurance 1,183,182 3,263,377
Oper & Other 311,327 941,553

Nina Koch said...

Actually if you go to the minutes from that June meeting and read carefully you will see that you are indeed mistaken:

"Ms. Gromacki said the High School would need approximately 5.2 additional FTE, or $270,000, to eliminate the need for an additional study hall next year."

The $270,000 represents the difference between offering 13 blocks and 14 blocks. It has nothing to do with trimester versus semester. Mr. Jackson's concern was about the amount of time kids spend in study hall. He stated at the outset that going to semester would not save money. It's all about how many blocks we offer. That's what saves the money.

I would also like to talk about the ways the cuts are affecting both students and teachers, because I think sometimes it's hard for people to see. However, I gotta go to school right now.

Another Cranky Taxpayer said...

Thank you so much for posting all those numbers! We constantly hear from people within the school system (like Nina posted here) that we have to provide all these special education services because of mandates. But do any other school systems have two alternative high schools? Those within special education would then argue "but if we didn't have those two alternative high schools, we would have to pay to educate those kids out of district." I agree that IF that were to happen, it might be more expensive. I imagine, though, that many of the parents of those kids wouldn't want to send their kids away and they would stay in our system and attend the regular high school.

I do also think that Amherst spends so much money on special education and has so many specialized services that it has become known worldwide as "the place to go" if your child has autism, Down's syndrome, or wants and alternative high school experience. In other words, we continue to add to our problem. We are clearly spending increasing amounts of our shrinking budget on special education and parents of kids with special needs see and hear that and might choose to move to Amherst to take advantage of those services for their children (and who can blame them?).

If we get our special education spending under control and increase our spending on regular education (which, by the way, also serves special education kids) which is where the vast majority of our students are classified, maybe we could again become known as a great school system for all kids. As it is now, I don't see that.

Meg Rosa said...

After seeing ow many blocks they have in the HS now I was thinking of the difference from when I was there (96). We had 8 classes per semester on an 8 day rotation. It always seemed like everyone had Opens (study halls where you could leave campus, and didn't have to check in with a teachers for that period). I keep trying to figure out why parents are so upset by there being required study halls, but I get it now.

They get 3 fewer classes per year than we had. Does anyone know when and why it changed to the Trimester system? Seems like it happened when 9th grade moved up to the HS. I was never clear as to why that happened though.

Anonymous said...

The trimesters happened to allow the students time to take more elective and higher level courses. When originally implemented, in flush economic times, no study halls were required. As times have gotten tougher and teachers have been cut so too have the number of elected courses offered. The one required study hall was introduced a bunch of years ago and the two last year. And contrary to what you might read from some on this board, many many school districts use a trimester system.

Meg Rosa said...

So when they switched over to the trimeseter system, how many classes was each child taking each year? I understand that they have cut back by at least 2 (2 required study halls now) but to me that adds up only to 15 classes, not the 16 we had in the semester system before that. Seems like they lost time and the amount of classes they could take, not gain any.

Joel said...

To Anon 7:00, you're actually quite wrong about the popularity of trimesters. If you google "trimesters high school massachusetts," you'll get results that are almost exclusively about Amherst Regional HS. There is an article about North Andover switching this year and it explicitly says that trimesters are rare in Massachusetts and only more popular in the western part of the US.

North Andover was warned about accreditation and is making the shift to offer more electives because it's in trouble with the accreditation agency. This is not an example to be embraced.

I know college admissions people in New England who say that trimesters are on their way out. Maybe they're wrong, but there is no evidence that the schools we compare ARHS to use trimesters or that the system is popular. Just because you say it, doesn't make it so.

Anonymous said...

Can someone please clarify how many kids are under SPED vs. Regular Ed. I am trying to understand the % of budget to number of students under each.

Also, we heard about positions being cut. Last year ARMS added a new Dean of students. They already have 2 assistant principals, 1 guidance and few under bridge program.

Anonymous said...

To Joel- And just because you say it doesn't make it so either. In Michigan 33% of the public hs are now on a trimester system. Maybe this is not a popular option in MA but it is NOT an idea or system that is out there educationally.

Joel said...

Sure, I saw 33% in Michigan. That means that the overwhelming majority of HS's in Michigan (67%) use a semester system. In New England and the northeast in general that percentage is no doubt even higher.

Of course, the question for us is, are trimesters working here? What evidence is there that a fairly unique system is more efficacious than the more standard system?

Anonymous said...

Another Cranky Taxpayer said:

"but if we didn't have those two alternative high schools, we would have to pay to educate those kids out of district." I agree that IF that were to happen, it might be more expensive. I imagine, though, that many of the parents of those kids wouldn't want to send their kids away and they would stay in our system and attend the regular high school."

Your assumption that the parents of the kids in the two alternative high schools would not want to send their kids away and those kids would attend the regular high school is just flat out wrong. My son was an out of district placement (he went to one of the HEC programs). One of the alternative high school programs was developed to bring kids like my son back to the district, at great savings to the district. It is alot more expensive to send these kids to HEC than to educate them in an alternative program in district. If that alternative program was ended, my son would not then miraculously be able to attend the regular high school, he would go back to HEC or someother, perhaps more expensive program. These kids CANNOT be educated in the regular high school. Just wishing it were so does not make it so.
My other son attended the other alternative high school. He was at the regular high school and was failing every course and was on the verge of dropping out. He found success at the alternative high school.
Now I want to cut the budget as much as the next person, but lets not cut it on the backs of the most vulnerable. I agree that something needs to be done to rein in SPED spending. That was one of the reasons for creating the alternative high schools. Those schools save the district money! Perhpas if they were housed in the same buklding that would save even more money still. But the answer is not to do away with those schools. That would not save money - it would increase the SPED budget.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the portables can be moved to the HS and used to house at least one of the alternative high school (the one that is in South Amherst). Then we can sell the South Amherst building, this will minimize our maintenance costs, and cut down on bussing costs (because everyone in town would be bussed to the same high school location). Also, the kids at the alternative high school would have the option to join in on some of the extracurriculars or take a few classes at the high school if they wish to. It wouldn't have to be an "all or nothing" choice then -it's possible some SPED parents hope to have their kids integrate into the regular school eventually.

Meg Rosa said...

I don't believe that any parents should say that we are spending too much on SPED or any other program really. I believe it is easy to say we are spending too much on SPED if we don't have a child in a SPED program. It is hard to walk in someone else's shoes, and making assumptions about certain programs is trying to do just that. We may indeed be spending too much on certain programs, but I don't feel the average parent or town resident should make that kind of judgement. If and when the SPED programs have an evaulation done, we will have more answers. I feel like the most any of us should do, is to ask for that to happen. It is easy to look at a program and see how much it costs and say we need to get rid of it, but it may be a program that does really well for the children it serves. That is our job right? To give the children the services they need? Remember who it is that we are actually talking about here. In the long run, these are our children, our future. So yes, ask the questions, ask for evaluations, because we should be running at top efficancy, but try not to judge.

Rick said...

I agree with both what Meg said above, but also with what Anon 12:10/12:20 (the person who posted the numbers) said.

In other words, we should look hard at the increases and try to knock them down, but at the same time we should not be making assumptions about why they increased until we investigate each line item thoroughly. When I say “we” I mean ARPS, and as mentioned before, ARPS really needs to communicate this stuff to us. In many cases (e.g. health insurance) I’m sure ARPS already has the answers and can tell us. In other areas it may require more study.

Anon 8:53 said ”Perhaps the portables can be moved to the HS and used to house at least one of the alternative high school (the one that is in South Amherst). Then we can sell the South Amherst building,” I don’t know if that is a good idea or not, but it’s exactly the kind of thinking we need to do.

Alison Donta-Venman said...

According to the information on the Mass DOE web site, 18.7% of Amherst elementary students were classified as special ed and 18.6% of regional students were. So if we take Catherine's numbers from this past year's regional budget, we are spending 19% of our budget for 18.6% of the population and 24% of the budget on 81.4% of the population.

Even if we could save money on a large-scale overhaul of the special ed system, according to what Catherine said, the consultant-to-be is not likely to be on the job until January at the earliest which means it will be too late to help this budget cycle.

Meanwhile, what would it take to house both alternative high schools (17 kids at East Street and 28 at South Amherst according to the ARPS web site) in one building? It seems as if that is a potential savings in utility/busing and maybe administration but would not eliminate programs before they were reviewed by the outside consultant.

lise said...

Please be aware that there is a difference between a trimester schedule, and a trimester BLOCK schedule (what we do in Amherst).

Many schools use a trimester system but the core classes are all year-long classes. Only electives can be takes for one trimester. This avoids the continuity issue of block scheduling, yet retains the ability for students to take a wide variety of electives.

At ARHS there are no year-long classes, and the block scheduling approach means students may have close to a 6 month gap between finishing Spanish II and starting Spanish III.

The controversy about trimesters is really a controversy about block scheduling. Do all of the trimester schools in Michigan do block scheduling as well?

Anonymous said...

Number of SPED kids from 2000-2009

http://www.arps.org/node/727

In 2000, the number of SPED kids in the regional district was 379 out of 2058 (18%). In 2009, the number is 315 out of 1732 (18%).

For Amherst (elementary), there were 233 kids out of 1538 (15%) and in 2009, there were 234 out of 1314 kids or 17.8%).

Think about that - for the regional district, the budget went UP by $1.7 million while the SPED kids served went from 279 to 315 over 9 years (18% in both cases, an increase of 35 kids)).

For the Amherst elementary school, the number SPED kids served was essentially the same (233 vs 234) and the budget went up by $1.6 million).

How can we have added $1.6 million 24% to budget over 9 years for one extra kid? Were we not in complicance 9 years ago? Are we over-complying right now? Or extrememly inefficient? Or, similar to how many other things have been added willy-nilly to the Amherst school system, have a variety of different SPED programs been added here and there, each requiring a different set of teachers/staff and admin?

Everytime the subject of cutting the SPED budget comes up, people write about how they have to fight tooth and nail for every service their child receives in the IEP meetings AND I still hear how the services are not helping their kids progress forward, or progress towards reintegration into the classroom. Some posters will refer to how many of the SPED kids seem to be kids of color or low income like that is a red flag. There seems to be lot of disatisfaction with the SPED programs yet the large expenditures suggest that there may be some inefficiencies as well.

I'm glad there is going to be a thorough review of the SPED system (in January, did someone say?)

I think everything should be on the table for budget cut consideration, and people shouldn't use the word "SPED" to shut other people up, as if it were something sacred. And use terms like "balance the budget on the backs of the ... disadvantaged, low-income, people of color... fill in the blank with any group that will elicit a call to social justice). Just like people shouldn't resort to calling someone "discriminatory" or "prejudiced" just to stop the conversation.

And I also think it's more efficient for us to look most carefully at the biggest budget items and the items that have seen the biggest increases. Why get the town in an uproar (and endless discussion, you know how this town gets) over a $200,000 discussion when you can possibly have a more productive conversation over a multi-million dollar line item?

I think the big issue for us (laymen) is that it's not clear exactly what is state mandated and what are the many ways one can meet state mandated requirements for SPED students. And there is NOTHING wrong with asking for answers. If the answer is that the state has been steadily increasing the stringency of their requirements for SPED and that we are meeting them in an efficient manner, then that is a GREAT answer that will satisfy the taxpayers.

confused said...

What teacher and staff cuts were there last year to the middle school and high school?

Anonymous said...

I would also ask what additions there were. I heard there were multiple special ed teachers added for a specialized program.

Rick said...

Lise: thanks for point that out. This is what I like about trimester: “the ability for students to take a wide variety of electives.”

Anon 2:03: Fantastic post – you make some great points.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 8:34 AM - What is an HEC program?

Anonymous said...

HEC = Hampshire Educational Collaborative

Nina Koch said...

We have definitely lost options since the 90s. Meg, when you were here, there were 16 blocks and some students took courses in every block, while other students took study halls voluntarily.

Changing to the trimester reduced our offerings from 16 to 15 blocks. More recently, enforced study halls have reduced that to 14 and now 13 blocks. So it is definitely different than when you were here.

If we switched back to semesters, it would be a 7 period day, not an 8 period day like Meg had. And it would probably be down to 12 blocks.

It's definitely a loss, for a wide range of students. Back in the "old days," students could double up on academics or be members of two different music ensembles. We just can't afford that any more. I also worry about kids who look forward all day long to art class or wood tech class and really find their passion there.

I think we have to decide if we want to still be a comprehensive high school. If we lose much more out of our elective program, we may find ourselves paying more tuition to the vocational-technical schools in the area or losing kids to charter schools like PVPA.

Anonymous said...

If we decide to add a third study hall and bring it to 12 blocks (doesn't matter if semester or trimester), how will 9th graders take any music at all? 4 code academic subject and the language will take 10 blocks. health is 1 block. That will leave only one block which is not enough for a music program (band or orchestra or chorus). Does this mean the students have to choose between music or world language?

Anonymous said...

To continue with my last post, sophomores can't take music either as 5 core + language = 10 blocks. Phys Ed is mandatory. So that leaves 1 free block for an elective.

Juniors and Seniors -- if they take any 3 block courses like AP Calculus or AP Biology, they can't take music either since the core courses and the world language will take up 11 blocks with just one AP 3 block course.

Anonymous said...

I think you can expect music to be eliminated next year.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

My response:

It is late, and I just walked in for a 4 1/2 hour SC meeting. However, to clarify: the proposal last year was to move the high school schedule to a semester, and this was recommended by the HS principal. The proposal was to have 7 periods, or 14 periods all year, which is one fewer than we now have (15). However, right now, we have 15 periods, and two of those are spent in study halls. For the exact same money, on a semester system, kids could have 13 periods and only one study hall. That would be an increase in class time for NO increase in money (that is why the principal last spring gave the estimate of $270,000, which is what is costs to move from two study halls to one on the trimester system).

In a 13 period schedule, most kids would take 10 academic classes, just as most kids do now (2 math, 2 science, 2 english, 2 social studies, 2 world language). However, these classes would then be CONTINUOUS over the entire year, and not, as they are now, divided into 2 of the 3 trimesters (meaning that kids have big gaps in their knowledge).

What would this do to electives? Nothing. Right now kids who take 5 academic classes get 3 electives and have 2 study halls. In a semester, kids would have 5 academic classes (10 periods total) and have 3 electives.

Nina describes a 12 period schedule on a semester, which I've never heard anyone consider. What I have heard considered, however, is going to 3 study halls a year -- meaning that kids would have 15 periods a year, and that three of those would be spent in study hall (the same as kids just not attending class at all one day a week).

One more thing: the majority of high schools BY FAR in the United States, in Massachusetts, in Michigan have a semester system. As with many things, Amherst does things differently -- which may or may not be better.

Cathy C said...

Here is my perspective as to why the budget cuts at the MS have gone as deeply as they possibly can without drastically changing the structure of the school. While further reductions will be necessary, I can’t fathom 6 figure cuts for the next several years.

Last year MS students had 8 rotating periods in which to take classes – this year its only 7. (12.5% less options)
Last year MS students’ music classes were everyday – this year music is every other day (50% less music)
Last year MS students took 3 exploratory classes, one each trimester– this year only 2, one each semester (33% less exploration)
Last year MS students were on 6 teams with about 80 students each – this year there are 4 ½ teams with 100 to125 students (So some core subject teachers have 50% more students then they did last year. That’s 50% more work to correct, report cards, parent emails to answer… and less time for each individual student)

So a schedule might be:

World Laguage
Social Studies
English
Math
Lunch
Music/PE (alternating days)
Computers (Exploratory)
Science

Class sizes range from 18 to 30 with averages of 22 in 7th grade and 25 in 8th grade.
Where is the fat in that?

Still, the kids are enjoying middle school. The work is getting done. I am very impressed with all the people who make the middle school work well despite all the cuts. My son’s teachers are amazing and we are grateful for his enriching experiences.

Anonymous said...

I am a lawyer and we are taught in law school how efficient and important it is in each case not to reinvent the wheel, and not to do research that has already been done. In a legal brief it is perfectly acceptable to quote pages and pages of other people's work and court decisions, as long as the citations are correct and honest.

Let's do that in Amherst. Let's do what has worked in other places, let's find out what most places do and do it that way. It sounds like the SC already knows what is working in other places. This is valuable. People do a lot of research and analysis, let's piggyback off that. Why reinvent the wheel and subject ourselves to failing programs, failed systems, inefficiency and protracted debates?

Let's switch back to semesters at the high school. It works and it's efficient. Most places do it that way. We are not special in Amherst. We are only special because we live in an academic community and some of our public schools are failing.

Anonymous said...

I want to second what Cathy Cullen has said. I was surprised at Catherine's comment about not thinking that the Middle School has been cut to the bone. I will not repeat the statistics that Cathy has listed but want to echo her comments about how impressed I have been with the hard work, dedication and caring that our daughter has received by her teachers particularly in light of the cuts which I do think are to the bone. My daughter's teachers have been real professionals.

I want to quickly address another topic. As a former Dean of Admissions and College Counselor I have some insight into the admission process from the inside. I agree that we should and must evaluate programs each year as to fiscal responsibility and effectiveness however I hope that those of you with students in the school will be satisfied when graduates from Amherst Regional High School are not being offered admission to the colleges of their choice. Grades and test scores get students to the table however it is those students who will bring more to the collegiate environment who are admitted. If we no longer have music, athletics, clubs electives, our students will not be competitive.The question was always raised. "What have they done beside academics" that is why I will dig a bit deeper into my pocket and support an over ride if the funds will go to the schools to maintain some level of academic excellence and extra curricular enrichment. And if there is not the funding to support teachers, coaches, etc. I for one will not blame the schools in years to come.

Jan Kelly

Anonymous said...

I agree that there have been significant cuts at the MS - however, I know that our special ed budget could be used more efficiently - and we still don't have a clear picture of how much can be saved at the HS.

I need to see serious efforts to increase efficiency before I vote for an override for the schools.

Teachers also need to be aware that their health insurance costs have doubled over the last 8 years. My concern is that they don't acknowledge this as a wage increase because they don't feel it. My family's health insurance costs have MORE than doubled in that time and we pay 50% -- so, to vote for an override is difficult for us because we are getting squeezed from both sides.

Nina Koch said...

Catherine,

The only way that we save money with a schedule change is if we reduce the number of courses that kids can sign up for. We would have to go from 13 to 12. That is what hurts the elective programs. We have already lost elective teachers and would lose even more if we went to 12. 12 is definitely under consideration. And as a previous poster pointed out, it would make it very difficult for some kids to take music.

Switching from trimester to semester while maintaining 13 blocks would not save any money. It's all about the number of course offerings.

Catherine A. Sanderson said...

Nina - I've never claimed that just making the switch from trimesters to semesters alone would save money. What I've said repeatedly, and is what Mark Jackson has said repeatedly, is that FOR THE SAME MONEY kids in a trimester spend less time in class than in a semester. To me, as a parent, that is important!

Right now, in our trimester, kids have 13 classes and two study halls. That means they spend 87% of their time in class, and 13% of their time in study hall.

For the SAME EXACT MONEY, you could move to a semester, and kids would still have 13 classes and one study hall. That would mean they would spend 92% of their time in class and 8% of their time in study hall. They would have the exact same number of academic and elective classes!

For me, as a parent, I'd rather my kid get the extra 5% of time learning with a teacher in the semester -- and it wouldn't cost more (and would provide consistency of instruction over a year and eliminate the academic breaks we see now in the trimester when kids go for as long as 9 months without ANY instruction in a given area).

Now, let's say the budget gets REALLY bad (as it is seeming). In a trimester, we could just drop one more class and go to 12 classes, and 3 study halls. That would mean kids have 80% of their time in class, and 20% in study hall.

Now, let's say we had a semester system and only 12 periods of class and 2 study halls (same number of classes AND electives as in the trimester). They would have 86% of their time in class -- with 6 classes and one study hall each semester (which would still allow one to take social studies, science, math, english, world language, AND an elective every semester). Again, for the EXACT SAME money, kids get 6% more time in class.

Does the semester save money? I guess it depends on your point of view, but I think many parents would see spending MORE time in class for the SAME amount of money as a benefit.

Anonymous said...

With trimesters, kids take only one trimester of health (1 block) in 9th grade and 1 trimester of P.E (1 block) in 10th grade. Both of these are so far mandatory.

If we move to semester how does this work. They will have more class hours of health and P.E.

Also, with trimester we have most core courses 2 trimester long, most electives 1 trimester long and couple of A.P courses all three trimester.

How would this correlate to a semester schedule. If we move down to 12 blocks under both system, kids have to choose between music & world language, unless Music is totally eliminated, or health/P.E becomes optional.

Anonymous said...

P.E is 9th grade, health is 10th.