Amherst School Committee restores art and technology specials teachers for FY23 budget – but how? (Amherst School Committee meeting 3/29/22)

Siblings of students in special education programs will be offered to attend the same school, but no guarantee of transportation.

At the Amherst School Committee meeting on March 29, 2022, the committee voted unanimously to restore the art teacher and technology teacher positions to 1.0 FTE (full time employee) per school. These six positions (one art and one technology teacher at each of our three elementary schools) had been reduced to 4.8 FTEs for the 21-22 school year, and the plan was to have teachers from Wildwood and Fort River cover sections at Crocker Farm on a part-time basis, while still teaching the same number of sections in their home school. This resulted in less prep time and more stress for those teachers. The committee received public comments and emails from several educators and many community members, urging the restoration of these positions. Perhaps the most poignant was from Fort River technology educator Trevor Takayama: 

“If I have to teach my full load of classes at one school and add on another 20% (5 classes) at another school for the second year in a row… then I am quitting the 20% part next year and I’ll take a paycut for teaching my full load in 4 days. I am exhausted from the added workload.”

You can read the submitted public comments on the Boarddocs site for the March 29 meeting.

The amount of funding needed to bring the 4.8 FTEs up to 6.0 was pegged at $79,200. In my view, this is a relatively small number (in a $25 million budget) that has a very large impact. As one parent said, 

“It shouldn’t have to be said that our students desperately need consistency and support for arts integration and technology. We have already lost fabulous educators because of the budget cuts. It is critical that the district prioritize arts education, and technology education.”

The original FY23 (‘22-’23 school year) budget proposed to the School Committee did not include restoring the positions to full time. When I asked, at the March 8 meeting, what the budget would look like if these positions were restored to full time, Superintendent Mike Morris immediately responded that the funds could be pulled from ESSER funds (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, a temporary federal COVD relief program). The proposed budget already included $393,531 in ESSER funds to “support the budget.” That is, it had already been proposed to use these temporary funds for operational costs. Morris suggested on March 8 that we could pull the additional $79,200 by increasing our usage of ESSER funds.

However, at the March 29 meeting, Morris stated that he did not think it was a good idea to use these temporary funds for the specials teachers. The funds will be available for one more year after this one (FY24), and after that we will fall “off the cliff” of temporary funds – that is, those funds will no longer be available and we will have to figure out how to cover that amount.

Much discussion ensued about the advisability of using a higher amount of ESSER funds ($472,731, as opposed to the $393,531 originally proposed). Several other school committee members were uncomfortable doing this, and did not want to use temporary funds to cover salaries. However, I felt that, since we were already going to do that – we were already going to use almost $400,000 in ESSER funds to cover staff salaries, and since we have the funds available this year and next year, why wouldn’t we use them?

School Committee member Peter Demling brought up the idea of requesting a higher appropriation amount from the town of Amherst in order to cover the $79,200. (Brief background: The town gives the school district guidance as to how much the school district can spend in the next fiscal year. Typically, the school district works within that guidance. The amount the town allocates to the school is called the “appropriation.”) Finance Director Doug Slaughter responded that the school committee *can* approve an appropriation amount that is higher than the guidance given by the town. It will then be up to the town to approve that amount or not.

I did not think it was a good idea to request an appropriation amount higher than the town’s guidance, in order to fund the art and technology specials teachers at full time. To me that feels like “passing the buck” to the Town Manager and Town Council to decide whether or not to fund these positions, instead of the School Committee making the decision. But in an effort to compromise, I proposed splitting the difference – what if we fund half of the $79,200 with ESSER funds and half through town appropriation? 

In the end, we landed on a one-third ESSER/two-thirds town appropriation model. One-third of the $79,200 ($26,400) will be pulled from additional ESSER funds, and two-thirds ($52,800) will be added to the total amount we will request in appropriation from the town. I don’t love this plan! But it was super important to me to get the specials positions restored to full time, so I voted in favor of it. It remains to be seen if the town will agree to the higher appropriation amount.

Later in the same meeting, the School Committee discussed the policy of allowing siblings of students in one of the three district-wide special education programs to attend the same school. The AIMS (Academic Individualized Mainstream Support) and Building Blocks programs are located at the Fort River School; the Intensive Learning Center program (ILC) is located at the Wildwood School. Students enrolled in these programs go to the designated school, even if they do not live in the defined enrollment area for that school. This can result in siblings attending different schools. SEPAC (Special Education Parent Advisory Council) sent a public comment strongly urging the School Committee to allow siblings of students in these specialized programs to attend the same school:

“The shared experience of school for siblings, both disabled and non-disabled, is an important part of growing up. At present, families of non-disabled children have the luxury of being together at school. Our special education students and their families deserve the same.”

The committee chair informed us that the decision had already been made, last year, to allow this, but it had not been implemented yet. It is unclear why it had not been implemented.

The School Committee then heard from the superintendent about the potential challenges of providing transportation to school for siblings of special education students. He talked about vans being filled to the brim already, and bus drivers being in short supply. 

I pointed out that there are around 40 students in the specialized programs (a number that fluctuates year to year, but has been around 40 for several years). Some of those students already attend their home school, some do not have siblings of elementary age, and some families may not want the sibling(s) to attend the same school (for any number of reasons). The number of siblings whose families would take advantage of this could be very low. Still, the superintendent was uncomfortable guaranteeing transportation for siblings. The school committee discussed the inequity of offering the choice for siblings to attend the same school but not guaranteeing transportation – only families with the resources to have private transportation and the time to drive their student to school will be able to take advantage of this. Still, I did not want to hold back on offering this to families. I do hope that, in the end, transportation will be made available to all families who participate in this.

Regional School Committee approves high school track and field project (Regional School Committee meeting 3/15/22)

Last night in an 8-1 vote, the Regional School Committee (RSC) approved a motion to approve borrowing $1.5 million for the ARHS track and field project: 

MOTION: Move that the District appropriates the amount of One Million Five Hundred Thousand Dollars ($1,500,000) to pay costs of resurfacing the existing track, relocating field events areas, improving access to the existing facility, installing perimeter fencing and pathways systems to provide ADA accessibility to the existing track, and for the payment of all other costs incidental and related thereto, and that to meet this appropriation the Treasurer, with the approval of the Chair of the School Committee, is authorized to borrow said amount under M.G.L. c. 71, §16(d), or pursuant to any other enabling authority, and to issue bonds or notes of the District therefor. Any premium received upon the sale of any bonds or notes approved by this vote, less any such premium applied to the payment of the costs of issuance of such bonds or notes, may be applied to the payment of costs approved by this vote in accordance with Chapter 44, Section 20 of the General Laws, thereby reducing the amount authorized to be borrowed to pay such costs by a like amount. In the event that the Committee should determine, on or before January 16, 2023 that at least $2,200,000 has been raised through other sources, including but not limited to, Community Preservation Act Funds contributed by member towns of the District, American Rescue Plan Act funds, grants from the Commonwealth or from any other sources whatsoever, then the amount authorized to be borrowed by this vote shall be applied, instead, to pay costs of relocating the track to a north/south orientation with a synthetic  playing field interior, relocating the field events area to adjoining field space, improving access to the facility, installing perimeter fencing and pathways systems to provide ADA accessibility to the track facility, new field lighting and irrigation facilities, and for the payment of all other costs incidental and related thereto.

The wording of the motion is confusing, due to legal requirements when a body approves borrowing. It essentially says this:

A. The RSC approves borrowing $1.5 million, which will be the responsibility of the four towns according to a predetermined formula (each town will take on a portion of the debt), for a project to resurface the ARHS track, as well as other improvements such as providing ADA accessibility.


B. If, by January 16, 2023, the district can raise an additional $2.2 million through state, federal, or private grants, private fundraising, or other sources, then that $1.5 million approved for borrowing will be applied to a different/bigger project – to re-orient the track to a north/south orientation, install a synthetic turf playing field, provide ADA accessibility, and other improvements.

The project described in A above is referred to as “option 1” and is the bare minimum that needs to be done to make the track safe and usable. What is described in B above is referred to as “option 3” and is the preferred option of the district and all of the members of the public who submitted public comments via email, voicemail, and in-person last night. However, the price tag of option 3, around $4.7 million, is out of reach. We have received input from our member towns that spending any more than $1.5 million (via borrowing) is not feasible.

At the March 1 RSC meeting, Director of Finance Doug Slaughter put forth the idea to borrow $1.5 million, and come up with the remaining $3.2 million needed for option 3 through a combination of Community Preservation Act funds, private fundraising, and grants such as the American Rescue Plan Act.

Image: Screenshot from March 1 presentation to the RSC on the track project.

This idea is a model/plan for how to fund the project; none of these funds have been committed (or applied for) at this time.

Why doesn’t the math add up? We need to come up with another $3.2 million for option 3, so why does the motion say $2.2 million? The RSC felt that if we fall short of the $3.2 million but get almost all the way there, we would still consider doing option 3, so the $2.2 million figure was used, to give a little flexibility in the fundraising goal.

Essentially, the plan is to borrow $1.5 million (this now needs approval from the legislative bodies in each of the four towns), and embark on a fundraising effort to raise an additional $2.2 million. If that $2.2 million (or more!) is raised by January 16, 2023, then the project will be option 3, the preferred project that gets us the track and field we want and need. If that amount is not raised, then we will proceed with option 1, the smaller and less costly project.

So, the district needs to raise at least $2.2 million in the next nine months. Now, I’m an optimist by nature, but I think it’s important to have realistic expectations here. At the March 1 meeting, the RSC discussed how feasible it is to raise $1 million in private donations. IMHO that is a very tall order! For some reference points:

To me, the scale of raising $2.2 million (or more) in nine months feels insurmountable. But I would love to be proven wrong! I hope that I am proven wrong, and that in January we can celebrate meeting the fundraising goal.

School Committee takes important step to move elementary school building project forward

Sibling enrollment and restoring specials teachers to be discussed at next meeting

On Tuesday March 8, the Amherst School Committee voted unanimously to approve the educational program and space summary for the elementary school building project. This vote was an important step in moving the project forward, on a path to completing the project and opening the new school in the fall of 2026.

The committee first viewed a short presentation on the educational program, a 34-page document that summarizes how elementary education is delivered in our district. I had already sent the superintendent and the lead designer my input on the educational program, and I summarized my input at the meeting:

  • Wildwood and Fort River each have around 350 students right now, for a total of around 700 students. The enrollment in the new building will be 575; in other words, the new school will have about three-quarters the number of students as WW and FR today. And yet, based on the Educational Program, it seems that there are many cases where staffing in the new school is at the same level as in the two schools combined. 
  • For example, according to the Educational Program, there is currently one psychologist each in WW and FR, and two will be required at the new school. But with a reduction in students from 700 in the two schools combined to 575 in the new school, I would expect to need fewer than two FTE psychologists. I don’t say this to imply that we shouldn’t provide the services that our students need, but just from the math, I would expect that fewer students would require comparably fewer staff. The same holds true for adjustment counselors and guidance counselors. According to the educational program, there is currently one each of these two positions at Fort River and Wildwood, and two each are stated as a requirement for the new school. Again, the same number of staff for fewer students. The more staff we have, the more space needed to house them. This is one of the reasons that the total size of the building is bigger than it needs to be, in my opinion.
  • In addition, the Literacy Professional Center sounds like a nice to have, not a need to have. There appears to be multiple other spaces in the building to serve as alternate locations for specialized small group or one-on-one instruction, as well as staff collaboration. If we had unlimited funds, we could fulfill all of the “nice to haves,” but when difficult decisions need to be made to keep the building both within our means as a community and right-sized for the environment, then we need to be willing to forgo some of the nice to haves so that we can focus on the need to haves.
  • Lastly, I feel that the descriptions of access to the outdoors and outdoor space needs are insufficient in the educational program. Our students deserve and need ample, accessible, and age-appropriate play scapes, space for creative play on fields and hardtops, and continued access to the outdoor learning that has been so important in these last two years of the pandemic.

Other committee members also voiced their opinions on the educational program.

Next we viewed a short presentation on the space summary, a detailed spreadsheet that describes the number and size of rooms and spaces needed in the new school, as well as the total square feet of the building. The latest proposal describes a total building size of 105,750 square feet.

(Both the educational program document and the detailed spreadsheet can be viewed in the School Building Project Education Plan agenda item of the March 8 meeting on Boarddocs, in the attachment called 22-03-02 Ed Plan_DRAFT.pdf)

Many of the comments, from School Committee members as well as from members of the public via email, voicemail, and live comments at the meeting, centered around the size (square feet) of the building. Some think we needed to make the building bigger – bigger and more rooms to serve our students. Some felt we needed to make the building smaller – use space more efficiently, lower cost, more environmentally sustainable.

Here are the remarks I made about the building size:

I’m looking at the project from several perspectives and points of view, and one point of view is that I’m a single parent who works full time and owns a house I can’t afford. I am perpetually in arrears on my property taxes. It’s the first bill I put off paying, or don’t pay in full, when my finances are tight, which is most of the time. That said, as a voter, I fully intend to vote in favor of the debt exclusion override next year, to pay for this school building. The increase in my property tax bill won’t force me to move out of town, but it will impact my quality of life – it will reduce my ability to pay my bills on time, and to pay for extra things like extra-curricular activities and hobbies for myself and my child. But as a tax payer and as a voter, I’m all in.

As an elected official, my job is to make sure that residents like me, who struggle to make ends meet, whether they are homeowners or renters, are not faced with a higher tax burden than is absolutely necessary, for a school project to meet the educational needs of our students. In addition there will be those who will be pushed out of town due to higher rents and higher property taxes. Already, living in Amherst is out of reach for many families. If we make it even harder to live here, then who is this school for? Is it only for people who can afford the higher tax bill or the higher rent that results from the higher tax bill? We say that our mission is the academic achievement of every student learning in a system dedicated to social justice and multiculturalism. But there is no social justice or equity in a town that only resourced families can afford to live in. 

We know that the size of the building is just one element of the cost. All of the other elements that go into the cost of the project are out of our control, but this one thing is within our control. At each step in this process, each individual or group that makes decisions, whether it’s the school committee, the school building committee, or the town council, has to do their part to develop a reasonably sized and priced building that meets the educational needs of our students, AND that our community can support, AND that is a net-zero building. While each body has a different piece of the total picture, we can’t make decisions in a vacuum; we must consider the whole picture. Tonight it is this body’s moment to do our part. We need to hand off to the school building committee an educational program that meets the needs of our students, and a space summary and total square footage that sets them up for success in terms of completing this project at a cost this community can bear. And then it will be the responsibility of the town council and the voters to approve the tax increase and the borrowing. But we get to go first, tonight, and we need to set ourselves up, to set this project up, for success. 

A right-sized building is the right choice for fiscal reasons, as well as for environmental reasons. This will be the first major town project to be built under our excellent net-zero bylaw. And there is already talk in the Town Council about weakening the net-zero bylaw to control the cost of this project. We don’t want that to be this project’s legacy. We don’t want to look back and say, we had a great net zero bylaw but we revised it so we could afford the school project. We owe it to our students, both our current students and the ones who will be inhabiting this building for 50 years to come, to deliver a right-sized, net-zero building.

All that being said, I’m not planning on suggesting any reductions to the current proposed plan. I also could not support any increases to it.

In the end, no proposals were made to increase or decrease the building size, and all School Committee members voted in favor of it.

Next we discussed the FY23 budget. I requested of Doug Slaughter, ARPS director of finance, to show us a version of the budget that restores the cuts that were made to specials teachers last year, which were implemented in this current academic year. The plan was to reduce the Art and Technology specials teachers at Crocker Farm to part-time, and have the teachers in those positions from Wildwood and Fort River fill in the gaps at Crocker Farm. I don’t know how this plan actually played out, but I hope to hear about it at our next meeting. Superintendent Mike Morris responded that a budget that includes restorations to those specials positions would simply pull the funds from ESSER funds (a federal relief program) and would not be permanent. It was agreed that this would be on the agenda for our next meeting.

I also asked about the policy for siblings of students in district-wide special education programs to be able to attend the same school. Currently, if a student is enrolled in a special education program that is not located in the school they are districted to, that student can attend the other school, however this sometimes results in siblings attending different schools. This topic was supposed to be discussed by the School Committee in fall 2021, in preparation for the FY23 budget, but it wasn’t discussed. It was also agreed that this would be on the agenda for our next meeting.

As of now, our next meeting will be Tuesday, March 29, at 6:30. It hasn’t been officially scheduled yet, so keep an eye on the Amherst School Committee page on Boarddocs for confirmation. You can also sign up on the town of Amherst’s website to be notified when a new meeting is posted (scroll down to Calendar >> Boards/Committees), BUT you will be notified of every town board or committee meeting AND this does not apply to Amherst Regional School Committee meetings.