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.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

News Analysis: ABCs of the district budget crunch

Amherst Bulletin
By Nick Grabbe Staff Writer
Published on December 04, 2009

While the Amherst School Committee and parents have been hotly debating Mark's Meadow School and redistricting this year, an even more contentious problem has been lurking in the background. How is the town going to pay for all its financial commitments? In other words: How many programs and positions will be eliminated if the schools have a smaller amount of money to spend? Public discussions about school budgets can be divisive. It's easy to say, "Quality schools are crucial" or "Taxes are too high already," but it's much more challenging to fully understand what are the options and trade-offs. The following questions and answers are designed to give Bulletin readers a guide to the issues Amherst schools will be grappling with in the coming months.

Q. How big is the problem?
A. There's a estimated gap of between $2 million and $4 million in the combined Amherst and regional budgets for the fiscal year starting in July. That's the projected difference between the cost of keeping the schools as they are now and the amount of money expected to be available.

Q. Didn't the Amherst schools already take a hit this year?
A. They did. The equivalent of 55 full-time positions were eliminated because of budget cuts.

Q. Why is this happening?
A. There are many reasons, but two major ones. First, the recession has cut state revenues, which means level funding in state aid to schools is now considered a best-case scenario. Second, the settled union contracts call for salaries to increase by $1.3 million next year.

Q. Can property taxes be raised to plug the gap?
A. Only with a successful Proposition 2½ override vote. But that's not an easy task. The average annual residential tax bill in Amherst is $5,611, one of the highest in western Massachusetts. If voters approved a $4 million override of Proposition 2½, the state law limiting local property tax increases, that would increase by 11 percent, to $6,228.

Q. So will there be an override vote?
A. The Select Board has tentatively scheduled it for March 23, the day of the town election. The board will decide the amount and whether to ask voters to approve just one figure or allow voters to decide on parts of the budget individually.

Q. How big a raise will teachers receive next year?
A. The cost-of-living increase will be 3 percent. In addition, many teachers and other staff will receive "step" increases averaging 4 percent. The combined increase will average 4.1 percent in the elementary budget and 5 percent at the regional level, according to school officials.

Q. Will the teachers union be asked to "give back" some of these increases, because they were negotiated before the recession hit?
A. Probably, but any discussions will likely take place behind the scenes. The union may argue that the increases will make up for low increases in the past, and that teachers are shouldering a bigger burden because of the cuts.

Q. If school budgets are cut, will the public have a say in how?
A. A focus group made up of residents is scheduled to receive some proposals from administrators before Christmas and meet on Jan. 4. Its members are Alison Donta-Venman, Rick Hood, James Chumbley, Joe Cullen, Stan Gawle, Ernie Dalkas, Becky Demling, Jennifer Holme and Joe Gensheimer.

Q. Will there be opportunities for other people to comment?
A. Yes. A public hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 26. The Regional School Committee is scheduled to consider a detailed list of possible cuts at its meeting Jan. 12, and the Amherst School Committee on Jan. 19.

Q. There has been talk of Regional Middle School students moving to the high school. Is that possible?
A. Everything's on the table. But the fact that the superintendent is looking at this option doesn't mean a move is imminent.

Q. What about out-of-district placements for special education?
A. These cost about $1.2 million a year on the regional level. A review of special ed programs is due to begin next month.

Q. Will sports fees go up?
A. It seems likely. There's a proposal on the table to make all sports programs self-supporting, which would increase fees dramatically.

Q. Wouldn't it save money to change from a trimester system to a semester system?
A. There are different opinions on this complex issue, and the teachers union would have to agree to a change.

Q. Will there be an increase in average class sizes and elimination of low-enrollment classes? Will there be fewer electives?
A. All on the table. Some School Committee members want to hold the line on higher class sizes, but committee member Andy Churchill said Amherst may have to accept them in the short term to avoid losing programs.

Q. There's some talk about "zero-based budgeting." What's that?
A. It's a process some School Committee members are endorsing that looks not at cuts but at what it would cost if you built school budgets from scratch. It's easier with the elementary budget than at the regional level, where the participation of three other towns and elective courses complicate the process.


Joel said...

I have heard the 55 figure bandied about by Andy Churchill at SC meetings, but is it true? Are there 55 fewer teachers in Amherst today than there were before this cut? If not, what is the actual number of teachers cut?

Joe said...


The answer to your question is NO. Based on the budget information available on the website the number of teaching positions has been reduced by 7.2 at the HS, 7.4 at the MS and 8.75 at the elementary schools in Amherst or approximately a reduction of 23 teachers (this number does not include guidance or library staff).

The key thing to recognize with the "55 figure" is the usual reference to "EQUIVALENT" positions. I haven't been able to tie out to the 55 number, but in general the budget process last year used a $54,000 amount equal to 1 teacher. So 55 positions would equate to $2,970,000. The total budget cuts (from a level services budget) last year was $3,420,190 ($2.04 mil regional and $1.38 mil elementary) which would imply approximately 63 equivalent positions. Approximately $2.22 million of the total cuts were directly associated with the schools, with the remainder from the district or central office. This $2.22 million is equivalent to 41 positions.

Personally, I think the "equivalent" calculation is misleading and not helpful for really understanding the breakdown of the costs that were reduced.

Anonymous said...

The concept of step increases needs to be stressed -- regardless of the pay raise, most teachers will get more money.

They get more depending on years of service *AND* they get more if/as they continue their education.

Regardless of how we look at things, we need to be honest.

Anonymous said...

Teachers get more compensation every year because their health insurance increases every year.

If teachers had to pay 50% of their health care costs, they would better realize the economic issues that many others are facing.

This could have urged them to get their union more involved in fighting for health insurance reform years ago.

Anonymous said...

Some staff see no increase once they are at the top step, so a 0% with an increase in health insurance costs means a pay cut.

Fed Up Parent said...

Yes, some teachers get no step increase because they are at the top of their pay scale but they still got their 3% raise last year and will get one again this year. Yes, it is very possible that all of this got eaten up with the increase in cost of health insurance, but we are living in a town where no one who works at Amherst College, Mt Holyoke, Hampshire, or UMass got ANY raise and are not likely to get one again next year. Just like the teachers, their health insurance costs went up last year (and again this year, most likely) so that means a pay CUT for the majority of workers living in Amherst.

Anonymous said...

6:25am - sometimes in this blog people make assumptions and believe them to be facts. I don't know if you meant to do so in your post, but not everyone who lives in Amherst works for a college or is even in the field of higher education. And that means not every child in the school system is coming from a family where the "family business" is school.

As we consider the budget gap that will need to be closed, one way or another, didn't I recently read that Amherst has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state? We need to stop looking at teacher salaries as the place where we are going to close the budget gap. It's $$$ 2-4 million dollars! There is no shortcut here. We have to decide what we want and pay for it. Teachers are our partners in this endeavor.

And if you have a problem with the quality of some teachers in the school, or some teachers that your child(ren) has had, that's an evaluation problem that the Supt should address.

Joel said...

To Anon 6:25

The fact is quite clearly that the raises are having a profound impact on the budget. They are what they are, and the teachers have no obligation to give them back. Having said that, they are a part of the deficit.

So, if we're "partnering" with the teachers and our part is paying among the highest taxes in the region and potentially passing an over-ride to pay even higher taxes, what exactly are the teachers doing in this partnership?

Let's start with the idea that they won't delay or give back their raises. Fair enough.

So, what can they do? The trimester system is costly and ends up leaving our kids with two study halls for the price of one in the semester system. Our "partners" voted against going back to semesters. Isn't it time they reconsider? Wouldn't voting to return to semesters send a powerful message to the community that teachers are willing to make sacrifices during these horrible economic times?

It strikes me as literally the least they can do given the salary increases and the request for an over-ride.

Joel said...

And to Joe at 1:04 on December 6:

Thanks for the information.

I wish Andy Churchill would tell the truth about this. I know he's a major proponent of the override, but distorting the truth will only blow up in the face of the process.

Last time we were told the schools would suffer horrible cuts if we didn't pass an override. I voted for it and publicly supported it. The end result of its failing was much less dire than predicted and we even wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on trailers for MM school that weren't needed and that we're now trying to sell to avoid paying more costs associated with keeping them.

We need to know from the superintendent and the SC what *really* happened after the last override failed and what will *really* happen if this one does.

Exaggerations and outright lies just undermine the pro-override case.

Joel said...


My post to Anon 6:25 was really to Anon 9:00. Maybe the same person.

Rick said...

On step increases:

In a steady state situation where the same number of teachers retire each year as new teachers get hired, the step increases are a wash. That’s because the new teachers are hired at much lower pay than the retiring teachers, so that balances off the step increases.

But probably we are not in a steady state situation. We are not hiring new teachers so there is nothing to offset the steps. Thus when a school is shrinking, the cost per teacher goes up somewhat, and when its growing the cost per teacher goes down.

On health insurance, ARPS does better than most with increases running around 6%. Not sure but I believe most businesses are still seeing double digit increases. There is one area where ARPS seems to have done a good job of cost control.

Anonymous said...

Trimesters vs. Semesters

What do the students want? They have 2 study halls spread out over 3 trimesters. I would be very interested in a poll of all of the students.

Are we sure that the majority of the teachers who want trimesters are doing so because they are selfish and lazy? Do some of them have other reasons for supporting trimesters? I would like to hear more from them, and perhaps a poll here would help too.

I don't think there is a single reason for one over the other, and the people who are affected most should share their views. More information is better.

Anonymous said...

I would not be surprised if students preferred the trimesters. Fewer time spent in rigorous academic classes, only a few academic classes at a time, and more time in study hour (aka social hour...where talking, iPods, and texting are all least according to my teens).

On matters such as these, I don't think we should defer to "what students want." I'm sure they would also like half days, a month off at Christmas, and no exams!

Joel said...

I just met with a senior at ARHS about college admissions. He was harried last Monday because the 2nd trimester had just begun. This shocked me because that means it's interrupted by Winter Break. He added that two major vacations interrupt the 2nd trimester (Winter and February breaks) and that those breaks make learning anything in the 2nd trimester much more difficult.

It's important for people who are familiar with the quarter system on the college level to know that this is not like that. Amherst has grafted three trimesters onto a semester schedule -- hence the big Winter Break, which should divide the school year into halves or semesters. At universities with quarters, the first quarter starts at the end of Sept. and runs through December. The second quarter begins early in January and runs into spring and the third quarter begins mid-spring and runs into June. The fourth is summer school.

I'm sure there are some arguments for the trimester, but I return to the fact that it is EXTREMELY rare in Massachusetts. We may be the only public HS doing it right now.

Anonymous said...

Annonymous December 7, 2009 2:58 PM: I'm with you on not asking the students what they want. They're not adults, their brains aren't fully developed. We're supposed to be the adults and make the decisions. We might ask for input, but in the end, we're paying the taxes, we'll decide. But then again, that's not PC in Amherst.

Anonymous said...

To Anon 5:10PM- why do you assume that teens can't give good feedback or have a good analysis of what effects them? Why do you assume that adults will automatically make good decision. How about electing George W. Bush- not once but twice or building a house on a hill prone to landslides or negotiating a raise with the teachers union and giving the teachers the power to veto any changes to the type of scheduling.

Anonymous said...

annonymous December 7, 2009 5:27 PM

Can we say "over react"?

Anonymous said...

Yea- over react- what's your point?

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure why the break in the middle of the trimester shocked you, because even if Amherst was on a semester schedule, winter vacation would still break up the semester. Every area public high school that I've looked at has their first semester ending in mid to late January, after the winter vacation and I can't imagine we'd be doing anything different unless we started school in early August.

Joel said...

The second trimester has two major breaks in it. The main point is that there is a reason we're practically alone in the Commonwealth with the trimester system. Other districts don't support it; we do. Why are we always the outlier?

Anonymous said...

To Joel - I read your comments with interest. I wonder if you could identify some things you think are good about the Amherst schools? Because you've evidently spent a lot of time looking hard at our schools, I'm curious if there's anything you could identify as being done well. Thanks.

Joel said...

To Anon 10:52

Here's what I think as a parent of two elementary school age kids -- so my sense of the MS and HS come from work on the social studies review and from what I hear from parents and teachers and what I've seen at SC meetings and from personal interactions with Jere Hochman and Alberto Rodriguez.

I believe we have some of the best teachers in the region. I'm told we pay among the highest salaries in the region and I know we have a lot of terrific kids, so I think we've succeeded in attracting some real talent in the classroom.

I also believe we've suffered from an absence of leadership from the previous superintendent and SC and some of the principals. Into that void, the teachers have placed their stamp on everything. In many cases, that's been terrific and I believe that Fort River is a great elementary school despite having had a principal who should have been fired for the things he said and did. (BTW, I believe the current principal, Ray Sharick, has a lot of integrity and is doing a fine job.)

Unfortunately, that absence of leadership has allowed the teachers to sometimes act without reference to the big picture. To be completely fair to them, focusing on the big picture is not their job. That's the job of principals, the superintendent, and the School Committee.

Let me be really clear before I'm accused of "teacher bashing": I believe the teachers stepped into a vacuum created by poor or absent leadership. So, I don't want to be critical of that act. In many cases, they had to make decisions. I don't think they should have the right to choose trimesters over semesters, for example, and as a UMass faculty member I wouldn't dream of dictating a change to quarters, but the teachers in Amherst have that power because Jere Hochman and the old SC gave it to them. The leadership was weak and the teachers outclassed them in almost every way.

But, as the adoption of the 9th grade science curriculum showed, the science teachers acted without reference to the entire HS program and without being able to force changes on MS or elementary school math. They could only react to the circumstances at hand.

Nick Shaw -- I think that's his name -- said publicly and directly to my face that the new curriculum was without any downside. Let's assume he was being honest and didn't see any downside. Well, it wasn't his job to know how the new curriculum fit in with everything. He's a science teacher. The principal, superintendent, and school committee should have studied the net positives and negatives. Had they done that, they could have said something along the lines of "there are costs to this new curriculum and here they are for you to see, but we believe they are outweighed by these gains," etc. Nick Shaw said something that is flat out wrong, but he should have never been put in the position of having to evaluate the entire curriculum. That's Mark Jackson's job.

In short, I think we benefit from a large pool of talented and hard working teachers. I think we suffer from asking them to also be managers because they cannot simultaneously teach their subjects and mentor all the students in their classes and have a sense of the big picture.

Anonymous said...

Again to Joel - Thanks. I appreciate it. Those are interesting points. I do have high schoolers and am so grateful to their really dedicated teachers, but your criticism seems worth considering as part of the whole picture.

Anonymous said...

I think that we'd be surprised how many ARHS students genuinely want what is best for their education. And I don't think that it is always something that is intuitive. When I discuss semester versus trimester with my daughter, I get a very thoughtful answer, and she seems fairly up-in-the-air about it. But this idea that teachers and students are simply looking for more opportunities to blow off time is a cynical one.

The fact that other public school systems in Massachusetts are not using the trimester system should not be dispositive of the issue, but it certainly should have us thinking twice about it.

I have noticed recently that the little bias that has crept into the dialogue on this blog is that the teachers in Amherst are cast as some sort of monolithic group, that take positions on educational issues in some sort of unanimous lockstep.

If that were indeed the case, it would be a first for ANY group of people in Amherst. My conversations with teachers here over the years indicate at least as lively a range of opinions among them as in the community at large.

Rich Morse

Anonymous said...

Has the school committee thought about how much money the supt is spending on consultants? Why did we hire him if all he is going to do is hire someone else to figure out how and where to improve our schools?

That's probably in the neieghborhood of $100,000.00.

And have we asked him to give back the $15,000.00 a year we pay him to travel to Miami?

Come on, all of this adds up.