A “rounding error” sized problem with no solution (Amherst School Committee 4/27/22)

A month ago at our March 29 meeting, the Amherst School Committee unanimously approved a compromise solution to restore our art and technology specials teachers to full time. You can read about it in my blog post covering that meeting. Essentially, we agreed to cover the $79,200 needed to restore six 0.8 FTE (full time equivalent) positions to 1.0 position each through a combination of additional ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund) funds (an additional $26,400, which is one-third of the needed amount), and a request to the town of Amherst to increase our appropriation from the town (an extra $52,800, which is two-thirds of the needed amount).

Since then, Superintendent Mike Morris received an email from Town Manager Paul Bockelman (which Mike forwarded to the School Committee members) indicating that Paul would not include the extra amount we requested ($52,800) in his submission of the school budget to the Town Council. He went on to say that the Town Council can add the amount in, with a two-thirds vote of approval by Town Council members. He mentioned that the School Committee could adjust our budget request to remove the extra amount, and bring the total school budget in line with the town’s original budget guidelines.

What does all this mean? Basically, with our vote on March 29, the School Committee agreed to ask the town of Amherst for slightly more than the town had planned to spend on schools for the 22-23 fiscal year. The town had planned to allocate $25,052,500 to the school district for 22-23, and the School Committee asked for an extra $52,800 (for a total of $25,105,300). Paul’s email essentially puts this decision in the hands of the Town Council, who would need to vote with a two-thirds margin to approve the additional funds.

But we did have an opportunity at last night’s meeting to change our request to the town. We could have reconsidered our decision from March 29, and decide to cover the $79,200 entirely with ESSER funds, or shifting money from another budget line item, or a combination of both, in order to remove or lower the additional amount requested of the town.

Also, there was a new twist! Mike shared with us that we received “a little over $20,000” in one-time state funds that were granted to school districts who lost enrollment last year and gained enrollment this year.  (Inexplicably, this is referred to as “pothole money,” though it has nothing to do with potholes.) He said that the district plans to use those funds, “plus a little more because we are in good financial shape,” to prepay special education tuition for out-of-district students for next year, which will help next year’s budget (this is legal and commonly done). This means that the 1/3 ($26,400) voted on by the SC at the last meeting won’t have to be spent out of ESSER funds – we will be able to pay it out of our budget. 

This is good news, since there is strong community support for figuring out a way to restore the art and technology teachers to full time. At last night’s meeting we received one live comment, two voicemails, and 10 emails, all in support of using ESSER funds or finding a way to fund these positions within our budget, from community members and Amherst educators.

With all this information on hand, I made two suggestions:

  • I suggested that we shift $30,000 that is earmarked in the Contingency section of the budget for Professional Leave, and use that to partially cover the art and technology specials teachers. That line item, reserved for teacher sabbaticals, has had zero spent on it for the past four fiscal years. I am strongly in favor of teacher sabbaticals, but if it isn’t needed then there seems to be no reason to set it aside. In fact, Mike acknowledged that the deadline for educators to request sabbatical for FY22-23 has passed, and there have been no requests.
  • I also suggested that we do what we agreed to at the March 29 meeting, and spend the additional $26,400 of ESSER funds. If we do this on top of the plan for the one-time state funds, that would cover two-thirds of the $79,200 needed to restore the art and technology teachers. 

If we agreed on both suggestions above, then we would fully cover the needed amount! If we could agree to one but not both, then we could lower the extra amount requested of the town (we could request an additional $26,400 instead of an additional $52,800), and make it easier for the Town Council to approve our request. However, my ideas did not gain any traction with the other School Committee members. Members expressed a desire to stick with the decision we made at the March 29 meeting, a desire to keep the $30,000 in case someone does request a sabbatical, and discomfort with using more ESSER funds on staff salaries.

I made a motion to reduce the additional amount in appropriations that we made of the town by $26,000, which was seconded by Peter Demling. The motion failed with all other members present voting against (Allison McDonald, Peter Demling, Ben Herrington), and only me voting in favor (member Irv Rhodes was absent).

I agree with Fort River educator Nicole Singer, who said in her public comment last night, “We have them [ESSER funds] so that we can use them for what students need. If it’s between using grant funding and not restoring the positions at all, I’ll take it.” Piecing together a patchwork solution that is not guaranteed past one year is not ideal, but if it’s between that and not restoring the positions at all, I’ll take it!

In addition, I feel that by requesting additional funding from the town for these teacher positions, and placing the decision in the hands of Town Council members, we are passing the buck. Now, those who advocated to the School Committee for finding the funds to cover the positions will have to advocate to the Town Council. We are ceding our decision making to the Town Council, which feels irresponsible to me. I’m not against the idea, in theory, of requesting more from the town than the guidance we were given, but to make teacher salaries contingent on the decision makes me deeply uncomfortable. I feel that we are failing our students and our educators, who have so clearly stated how important these positions are, by passing the buck.

I’m disappointed that we could not agree on a solution to this “rounding error” of a problem. $26,400, or $52,800, or $79,200 … these figures are so small in the context of our $25 million budget – we’re talking tenths of a percentage point. And yet, these positions are so impactful to our students and our school community. It seems all we can do now is advocate to the Town Council, for two-thirds of them to vote in favor of approving the additional amount requested by the School Committee. I hope you’ll join me. You can find contact info for the Town Council here.

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