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.

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