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.

Visioning of elementary education in Amherst

There are two Zoom workshops coming up that will allow community members to give input and participate in the visioning of the future of elementary education in Amherst, including goals and priorities for the new elementary school building.

Email me for the Zoom link (jennifer [at] jenniferamherst [dot] org).

See the January 7 Superintendent’s update email, or check out the event listings below:

Jan 13, 8:30 – 11:30 AM

Jan 26, 6:00 – 9:00 PM

Amherst has two school committees?

I thought it would be helpful to have a short primer on school committees in Amherst.

Every two years (in odd-number years), Amherst voters elect five School Committee members to two-year terms. All five seats are up for election at the same time, in the same election as other town offices, such as Town Council and Library Trustee.

These five officials make up the Amherst School Committee, the body that oversees Amherst’s three elementary schools: Crocker Farm, Fort River and Wildwood. This body meets around once per month, and has a chair, a vice chair, and a secretary*. (The Pelham, Leverett, and Shutesbury elementary schools are not under the purview of this body; those towns have their own school committee for their elementary school.) The Amherst School Committee is sometimes informally referred to by people as “the elementary school committee.” (To further complicate matters, there is also an Elementary School Building Committee, which is a different body.)

The five Amherst School Committee members are also members of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee. This body oversees the Amherst Regional Middle School and the Amherst Regional High School. Because these two schools also draw students from Leverett, Pelham, and Shutesbury, the Regional School Committee also includes members from those three towns (one each from Leverett and Shutesbury, two from Pelham), for a total of nine members. This body meets around twice per month, and has a chair, a vice chair, and a secretary (the secretary is typically a note-taker who is not a member of the committee).

The Amherst School Committee makes decisions on issues affecting the three elementary schools, and the Regional School Committee on the middle school and high school. For district-wide policies that affect both the elementary and middle/high schools, votes may have to be taken in both school committees. That’s why sometimes you may hear about an upcoming vote taking place and you think, Wait didn’t that vote already happen? It may be because it was voted on in one school committee, and then has to be voted on in the other. The school committees hold separate meetings.

* Further confusing this issue is the Union 26 School Committee, which is made up of the chair, vice chair, and secretary of the Amherst School Committee, and three officers from the Pelham School Committee. The Union 26 School Committee is tasked with employing the superintendent jointly with the Regional School Committee.

Clear as mud, right? If you’re confused, don’t worry – you’re not alone. Everyone finds it confusing at first; it took me several years of reading news, watching meetings, and asking questions, before I figured it out!

I Feel Lucky to be in Amherst (Regional School Committee Meeting: 1/4/22)

This blog post covers my observations, impressions, and comments on the January 4 meeting of the Amherst Regional School Committee. It is not meant to represent meeting minutes, and will not include all topics discussed at the meeting. All opinions are my own and do not represent the school committee, the superintendent, or the district.

Tonight was my first meeting as a member of the Amherst Regional School Committee. The first order of business was “Reorganization” which refers to electing a committee chair and vice-chair. This is typically done after an Amherst town election. The chair is an important role, because that person puts together the meeting agenda (with input from committee members), and manages the flow of the meeting (calling for votes, calling on speakers, etc.).

Superintendent Mike Morris facilitated the election of the chair. I nominated Sarahbess Kenney from Pelham, but sadly she did not accept. Gene Stamell of Leverett nominated Allison McDonald (the out-going chair) but she asked to pause on accepting or declining. She then nominated Ben Herrington. Ben accepted the nomination, and then Allison declined her nomination. Ben was elected as chair unanimously.

Ben then took over facilitation of the meeting, and we went on to elect a vice-chair. I nominated Sarahbess Kenney again, and she asked to pause on accepting or declining. Gene asked about the duties of the vice-chair and there was discussion on this topic. The school committee’s policies don’t say a lot about what is included or excluded in the duties of the vice-chair; the one thing that is clearly stated is that the vice-chair runs meetings if the chair is unavailable. Aside from that, the vice-chair can be as involved or uninvolved as the chair and the vice-chair decide. There were no other nominations, and Sarahbess accepted. She was elected unanimously.

I was pleased that Ben, in chairing his first meeting, asked if we could use first names when addressing each other. All agreed. I had always found the use of titles (Dr., Mr., Ms.) to be overly stiff and formal, especially given that the Amherst Town Council decided early on to address each other by first names.

Following are random/meaningful/stray observations:

  • In the agenda item “School Committee announcements,” Allison announced some upcoming meetings of the Policy subcommittee. I asked what is typically shared during this agenda item, and what the intention of this agenda item is. There was discussion that subcommittee updates and future meetings are often shared, as are other announcement-type items that are not on the agenda. Mike mentioned that if an item is not on the agenda, it’s fine to mention it, but it should not be discussed or deliberated, in order to comply with Open Meeting Law. The “School Committee announcements” agenda item should be taken literally as announcements.
  • In Mike’s Safety and Health update, he emphasized the importance of communicating with families about the district’s multi-pronged approach to safety: testing, masking, ventilation, distancing, and vaccination. He repeated that we have thus far seen no community spread in schools. That is to say, there are positive cases among students and staff, but no evidence that COVID is being spread in schools. We have seen an uptick in participation in pooled testing, with around half of students now opting in. The Amherst Board of Health gave the district enough COVID home test kits to distribute two to each student and staff member. I thought it was particularly meaningful that, even though these were Town of Amherst tests, all students (even those from other towns) were included. Mike shared that we are “one district” even though students are from many towns. Thank you to the Amherst Board of Health for choosing to distribute test kits via the school district, something that other towns did not do with their kits.
  • The strategy of having staff get tested on the Sunday before school started up again after the holiday break worked well, as several asymptomatic staff who tested positive stayed home on Monday. Similarly with students, Mike reported that families told him they were grateful for the at-home tests that were given out, because they could test before coming to school after the holiday break. Of course I’m not happy to hear about the positive tests, but grateful those cases were caught before school began again.
  • The district is in the process of requiring KN95 or surgical masks, not cloth masks, and is easing students into this new rule/guideline. KN95 masks are available for staff, and will be available for students in the coming weeks. I personally was caught off-guard by the emerging news that cloth masks are now deemed unacceptable. I had just purchased 100 kid-sized disposable masks for my ARMS student, and information seems to be unclear about disposable masks.
  • Regarding ventilation, windows are opened in cafeterias while students have masks off and are eating (it’s so chilly that students need to wear jackets), and students are instructed to have masks on when not actively eating or drinking.
  • Mike shared that staff are encouraged to meet virtually for adult meetings. Some members of the public have questioned why adults are meeting virtually but kids are in person, and Mike said something I found very meaningful – everything we do is in the service of keeping students in in-person school. If we can lower risk by having adults meet virtually, we should do that so that students can stay in in-person school.
  • ARPS will hold their 13th vaccine clinic on January 5, from 3pm to 6pm. The clinic is open to anyone (not just ARPS students/staff) for first shots or boosters. You can sign up for the vaccine clinic at this link.
  • Sometime this week, kids 12-15 may be eligible for the booster shot, and while it will be too late to get them in at the January 5 ARPS clinic, you may be able to bring your 12-15yo to the Amherst clinic on Thursday January 6.
  • Allison asked if there is any plan or process for moving to remote learning if COVID numbers get worse. Mike responded that any plan to go remote would need to be approved by DESE (department of elementary and secondary education), and that Governor Baker has made it clear that only in-person school days count; if a district wants to close school buildings they would need to take “snow day” and make up the day in-person later. I got the impression that there is no plan or intention to move to remote learning.
  • Mike mentioned that he feels very fortunate to be working here in Amherst where we have seen no masking protests, and where in fact we are now specifying what types of masks can be worn, and the community has been supportive. I feel the same way! I’m so grateful that we don’t have a strong presence of anti-maskers or anti-vaxxers in Amherst.
  • Next Mike brought up the idea of requiring students who participate in extracurricular activities (like sports and clubs, or anything school-based that takes place outside of the school day), to do pooled testing. At first I liked the idea of requiring participation in pooled testing in order to do extracurricular activities. The US is seeing far more breakthrough cases with the Omicron variant (more vaccinated/boosted people are testing positive) than with the original or Delta variant. If we can get more people into pooled testing, all the better! That said, I agree with my fellow committee members that I would like to hear more about how this would work, how it has worked in other districts, and what the benefits would actually be. If almost half of students have already opted in to participate in pooled testing, and if we are not seeing community spread in schools, then what are the benefits to requiring more/some students to do pooled testing? The committee members agreed to refer this to the Policy Subcommittee to look at research and data, and make a recommendation to the School Committee.
  • We got our first look at the proposed FY 23 budget from Finance Director Doug Slaughter. The “Central Administration” line shows a sizable increase (20% or $42k), which is attributed to legal expenses due to an increased need for legal counsel on issues regarding labor negotiations. I interpret this to mean that because there have been more labor issues regarding the COVID pandemic, the administration has needed legal advice more than in past years.
  • The English Learner Education line, while relatively small, shows a decrease of 36% or $9,550. Doug shared that this was due to changing the model of how we deliver English learner education. While in the past we have hired tutors ad hoc to work with ELL students; now we are shifting that work to staff, so the spending has shifted from the ELE line to the staff salaries line. I think this is a positive shift, to have school staff doing this work instead of ad hoc tutors.
  • I asked about the Special Education line, which has been quite volatile from year to year. A big portion of this line is spending on out-of-district placements, some of which is reimbursed by the state the following year via a circuit breaker mechanism, which is the reason for some of the volatility. I mentioned that in the future I would be curious to see that line broken out into in-district spending and spending on out-of-district placements.

We were notified by Amherst Media that the sound was not working on their feed. In order to comply with Open Meeting Law, we needed to pause the meeting until the issue was fixed. We decided at this point to move into Executive Session, while awaiting the sound fix. Because Executive Session topics are confidential, I won’t be writing about them.

When we returned from Executive Session, it was after 10pm, and we attempted to continue with Doug’s budget presentation. However, the Amherst Media feed had trouble again, and given the late hour, we decided to meet again on Saturday, January 8, 30 minutes prior to the Four Towns meeting, to finish the budget presentation. All other agenda items that we didn’t cover will be pushed to the next School Committee meeting, on January 18.