By NICK GRABBE
Thursday, November 26, 2009
AMHERST - The cuts needed in next year's school budget are so large that Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez is considering the option of moving students from the Regional Middle School to Amherst Regional High School.
"We're looking to see if that is a model that would save us a substantial amount of dollars," he told a joint meeting of the Amherst and Regional School Committees Tuesday. He said the probe is in its initial stage.
Rodriguez acknowledged that there would be substantial pushback from parents.
But the combination of increased staff costs and decreasing state aid requires cuts that he called "draconian," unless voters agree to raise property taxes beyond state limits next March.
Committee member Debbie Gould, of Pelham, said it's difficult to achieve cuts in the $2 million to $3 million range, while maintaining popular programs, by just trimming here and there. "In these times, we need to leave no stone unturned," she said.
Committee member Irv Rhodes, of Amherst, compared the creation of a school budget to building a house. He said he wants to tell administrators how much money is available but not to micromanage the construction.
Rodriguez continued the metaphor. "Where do you want the window?" Rodriguez said. "We need guidance as we're building the house so there's as little wasted motion as possible."
Member Farshid Hajir, of Leverett, also went with the house-budget comparison.
"I'm afraid we have a Taj Mahal we can no longer heat," he said. "I don't want a log cabin, but I hope to end up with a smaller Taj Mahal that is affordable and sustainable."
He said that if $3 million were cut from the regional budget, it would still be above the state minimum.
Rodriguez, who plans to finish budget preparation in early February, said it's important to define the "core" or "essence" of what the schools do.
"What is it that we stand for?" he said. "What programs are part of this community? Do I really need this program or is it something we can cut and maintain the overall level of services to children?"
Rodriguez said he's looking at the amount of time students spend in special education and the English language learners program, and possible changing the model for instruction.
"Some Ph.D programs are shorter," he said. "We may not be serving kids well, and these programs are costing a lot of money."
Amherst Committee member Steve Rivkin said the town should compare its programs to what other districts are doing. He said the schools should consider returning to a semester system and ending a program enabling students to attend Greenfield Community College.
But Rivkin said that class sizes should be maintained.
"Our main job is to make sure our students are learning core subjects," he said. Members Hajir and Andy Churchill were less optimistic about maintaining current class sizes. "I want the same quality and feeling but on a smaller scale," Hajir said.
Churchill reminded the committee that this year's school staffing is lower than last year's by the equivalent of 55 full-time positions.
Eighth-grade teachers are responsible for 120 students instead of 80, and the central office is having trouble keeping up, he said.
"I don't want to go to mediocrity just because we have to make budget cuts," he said.
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.