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.
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.