By NICK GRABBE
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
AMHERST - After outlining $2.6 million in possible cuts in regional school spending last week, Superintendent Alberto Rodriguez plans to tackle the elementary budget at a School Committee meeting Tuesday night.
"It's gut-check time," he said. "We need to decide what kind of educational services we want. Do we want bare-bones buildings and doors and windows, or do we want something that's truly motivational and of a substantive nature for our children?"
The level of the possible elementary cuts will be in the $1 million range, not including the estimated net savings of $450,000 from closing Mark's Meadow School, said Andy Churchill, chairman of the Amherst School Committee.
On Saturday, Rodriguez gave 35 officials from Amherst, Leverett, Shutesbury and Pelham a vivid picture of the impact on the regional school district of lower state aid and higher staff salaries. State aid, which accounted for a higher percentage of revenues than town assessments up to 2002, is down to 37 percent this year and not expected to rise next year.
There will be an increase in class sizes next year and a decrease in the number of elective courses, Rodriguez told the regional officials. The number of students per guidance counselor will rise and the amount of time allotted to physical education will fall, he said.
Two things could reduce the extent of the cuts. One would be a positive vote in Amherst next March 23 on exceeding the state-imposed limit on property tax increases. The other would be a giveback by staff unions on negotiated salary increases, which add up to 5 percent on the regional level and 4 percent on the elementary level.
There is a need for an override, Rodriguez said, but first it's necessary to go through the process of outlining possible cuts under different revenue scenarios. He said he made an offer on givebacks to the teachers' union, which on Thursday voted to talk to him about the sensitive issue.
"We're not going to economize our way out of this problem," said John Musante, Amherst's finance director.
Still, Rodriguez is looking for savings that don't affect classrooms. He said the district will change the "Cadillac service" of providing house-to-house bus stops. He has asked staff to recommend ways to reduce special-education costs while staying in compliance with the law, he said.
He has also proposed consolidation of two alternative high school programs, one in South Amherst and the other on East Street, where the high staffing level "exploded my mind," he said.
Rodriguez said he is assessing the financial and educational implications of switching from a trimester system to the more common semester system. He has also launched an inquiry into how many students have left the public schools for charter or private schools and what their reasoning was.
School Committee member Catherine Sanderson has circulated charts of state figures showing that the per-pupil expense in Amherst is much higher than the state average and surrounding towns. On Saturday, Rodriguez questioned the validity of such comparisons.
"It's a very inexact science," he said.
The data are two years old, he said, and Amherst last year eliminated the equivalent of 55 full-time positions.
The outcome of the Amherst override will have a big impact on the three smaller towns in the school district. The percentage increase in the town assessment will be largest in Pelham, where enrollment declines are more moderate, and smallest in Shutesbury.
John Trickey of the Pelham Finance Committee said he needs to know what his town's regional assessment will be, with and without an override in Amherst, and would like to project expenses three years into the future.
The regional school budget must be approved in three out of the four towns to become official.
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.