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Amherst elementary schools face $737,000 in cuts, shortfall in structured learning hours

Maria Geryk, Amherst's interim superintendent of schools, meets with about 25 peopl

KEVIN GUTTING Maria Geryk, Amherst's interim superintendent of schools, meets with about 25 peopl Purchase photo reprints »

The Amherst elementary schools will have to cut the equivalent of 17.3 positions to realize $737,000 in savings in the next fiscal year, the Amherst School Committee learned Tuesday.

At the same time, the committee discovered that the elementary schools are falling short of the state requirement of at least 900 hours of structured learning time per year. A report compiled by the New England School Development Council found that students in grades 1 through 4 in Amherst receive a maximum of 847 hours of learning per year, while students in grades 5 and 6 get 890 hours.

“We have to see what we can do to make this right,” Kathryn Mazur, the director of human resources, told the committee. “We’re in violation of the law.”

The elementary budget for this year is $21.5 million. Maintaining the status quo in services would require spending $22.6 million next year, but town officials are seeking just a 2 percent increase in school spending, so the budget target is $21.9 million. Because of the need to spend $80,000 more in certain areas, the actual cuts come to $737,000, said Superintendent Maria Geryk.

“This will be a difficult time, a time of innovation, a time of change,” she told the committee. “There will be times when it will be wrenching because change is tough. This transition will feel uncomfortable and new at times, but I believe the outcome is a school system that becomes stronger and more sustainable for our children.”

Geryk said some of the staff cuts will result from retirements and declining enrollment. She said she will meet with principals over the next three weeks to determine where trims will be made, but said they will be “across the board.”

She attributed the need for belt-tightening to an ending of federal stimulus money, declining grants, higher payments to charter schools and increased labor costs. Negotiations on a new contract with the employee unions will start next month. Geryk said she expects that state aid to local schools will be “flat at best.”

“We’re going to have to think about this outside the box,” said Katherine Appy, who chairs the committee. “How are we going to adjust our school system so we can meet our goals of providing the best education for all our students?”

Committee member Richard Hood questioned why it would cost 5 percent more than the current year’s budget to maintain the status quo. A recent report showed that a big factor in Amherst’s high per-pupil costs is a student-teacher ratio of 10-1, compared to a state average of 14-1, he said. In discussing the shortfall in structured learning-time hours Mazur said the problem is administrative and not the fault of teachers. Leaders of the teachers union have seen the report and attended Tuesday’s meeting but did not speak.

“The most obvious solution to the shortfall is the reduction in the number of early dismissal days, a solution many school districts in Massachusetts have embraced,” the report said. Elementary students currently are released early on 41 days per year, said Mazur.

The goal is to make changes in scheduling that will take effect next fall, Mazur said. There may be a survey of parents and guardians to get their perspectives on the problem, she said.

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