Four towns walked into a bar …

A “Four Towns” meeting was held on Saturday, January 8. This meeting was hosted by the Amherst Regional School Committee and invites individuals and bodies from the four towns (Amherst, Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury) to view, ask questions, and give input on the regional school district’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year. The folks invited are: School Committee, Select Board or Town Council, town Finance Committee, town manager.

Over 50 people attended the January 8 meeting, and I figured out how to see them all on my screen at once in Google Meet!

Screenshot of Four Towns meeting on Google Meet.

The regional school district (Amherst Regional Middle School and Amherst Regional High School) is funded by the four towns, with each town contributing an amount based on a formula. The commonwealth of Massachusetts dictates a formula that is referred to as “the statutory method.” This method takes into account each town’s “ability to pay” which is based on property values in the town. Despite the fact that “statutory” means required, a region can choose to use a different method, as long as all participating towns agree (it also needs to be approved by the commissioner of elementary and secondary education). The state refers to any other method as an “alternative method.” Here at ARPS we refer to our alternative method as “the regional agreement.” If a region uses anything other than the statutory method, it must be voted on every year (even if it’s the same as the prior year), and all four towns must vote in favor. This is a critical part of passing the budget.

For many years now there has been tension between using the state’s statutory method or our custom “regional agreement,” which is based on student enrollment (five-year rolling average of students enrolled from each town). 

Between 2008 and 2016, the “regional agreement” was used; in 2017, the four towns agreed to use a mix of the two methods: 30% by the statutory (ability to pay) method and 70% by the regional agreement (student enrollment) method. The goal was to slowly increase the % statutory method to ease the transition of changing formulas. For FY22 the formula is 65% statutory and 35% regional agreement.

Confused yet? Me too. Basically, the way I think about this is that for some towns, it’s better for them if they pay an amount based on their property values, and for other towns it’s better for them if they pay an amount based on the number of students they send to the regional schools. Right now, the assessment method (that is, the formula used) is a combination of the two (65/35).

Doug Slaughter, the ARPS finance director, presented various formula options, from 55% statutory to 100% statutory. Representatives from each town had the opportunity to speak and give their input. 

Andy Steinberg from the Amherst Town Council said that in the last five years (during the period that the % statutory portion of the formula has gotten bigger), Amherst’s contribution has gotten bigger while the contributions from the other three towns has gotten smaller. He implied that moving towards a greater % statutory is not sustainable for Amherst. He went on to say that people view Amherst as the big town with plenty of resources, but that 50% of property in the town is owned by UMass and other colleges, and another 30% is not taxable for other reasons, so a huge portion of town real estate is not taxable, and yet we have a sizable population that the town provides services for. This is not news to me, but I appreciated hearing it stated so simply. People think that high property values in Amherst mean that Amherst has plenty of money, but in fact a huge proportion of real estate within the Amherst borders does not bring in any property tax revenue.

A representative from Shutesbury said that their goal is to move to the 100% statutory method, which they believe is the most fair and equitable because it factors in the “ability to pay.” Interestingly, this is the option that would result in Shutesbury paying the least amount, among all the options. A representative from Leverett said that they prefer the regional agreement method because it is based on a dollar contribution per student from that town. The Leverett person said they feared if Amherst could not shoulder the burden of the statutory method, that the quality of education would suffer. Similarly with Shutesbury, Leverett’s preferred option is one of the lowest in terms of the total amount Leverett would pay.

I spoke up and suggested an exercise whereby representatives from each town would pretend to represent another of the four towns, and go through the process of determining the optimal formula from that other town’s perspective, in an effort to get people to see things from someone else’s perspective. 

This discussion will continue as the budget process unfolds in the coming weeks and months.

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