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 email@example.com.
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.