Effort to save culinary arts, preschool fail at Amherst TM

  • Jim Pistrang, top, who is the moderator, speaks during Amherst Town Meeting April 30. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2018

AMHERST — An attempt to preserve the culinary arts and preschool program at Amherst Regional High School, which are being eliminated next school year as part of $1 million in budget cuts, was unsuccessful at the third session of annual Town Meeting Monday.

But Town Meeting restored $15,000 in after-school program vouchers for the Amherst elementary schools, which proponents argue will allow more children from low- and moderate-income households to participate.

The $31.82 million regional school budget, which includes a $16.05 million assessment to Amherst, was approved nearly unanimously, but only after an amendment by Vincent O’Connor of Precinct 1, which he described as a $100,000 “gift” from Amherst to save the high school programs facing elimination, failed 110-68.

His amendment would have raised the town’s assessment to $16.15 million.

“It has the potential to accomplish some real good for the district,” O’Connor said, observing that the preschool at the high school could serve families currently on a waiting list.

Losing culinary arts, he said, could mean having more students head to vocational and technical schools.

“Maintaining a diverse program of high school electives is one piece of reducing vocational school choice outs,” O’Connor said.

Superintendent Michael Morris said he appreciates that residents want to have as comprehensive a program as possible, but noted that culinary arts is not a vocational program, and the preschool can’t take in many of the families on the waiting list. In fact, Morris said any effort to continue the preschool at the high school would be challenging since no 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds are enrolled for the fall.

“It’s really a response to the gravity of a seven-digit cut we were facing,” Morris said.

The space those programs used is also planned for the Summit Academy, an alternative day school which will move from its South East Street campus.

Select Board member Andrew Steinberg said it was uncertain if it is legal to make a gift to the district.

Rebekah Demling of Precinct 7 said her own children at high school care more about social studies than cooking. “It’s nice to have, but it’s not a core program that’s worth unintended consequences,” Demling said.

Regional School Committee Chairman Eric Nakajima said members of the committee shared concerns about the $1 million in cuts that had to be made, but also understand that the stresses aren’t going away.

The $23.23 million elementary school budget includes $500,000 in cuts, with rising health care costs meaning freezing budgets and leaving administrative positions vacant.

Still, music, art, technology and other specials were all protected from cuts to allow the broadest education experience, Amherst School Committee Chairwoman Anatasia Ordonez said.

The budget proposed cutting $25,000 in after-school vouchers, to be offset in part by an Amherst College donation of $10,000.

Even so, Carol Gray of Precinct 7 suggested adding $15,000 to preserve the full amount, which passed 102-62.

“This is important, these are kids’ lives,” Gray said.

“This is a big thing for those kids, it’s a relatively small thing for this budget,” said Janet Keller of Precinct 1.

Jones Library budget

A sizable majority at Town Meeting approved a $2.68 million budget for Jones Library, which includes $1.99 million from the town, even though concerns were expressed about loss of programs.

Library Director Sharon Sharry called it an “exceedingly difficult” budget, due primarily to rising health care costs, along with greater benefits to part-time employees and an increase to minimum wages.

The budget includes increasing the “draw rate” from the $8.75 million Jones Inc. endowment from 4 to 5 percent, and planning for more fundraising.

Even so, three part-time positions will go unfilled and fewer programs will be offered.

Andrew Parker-Renga of Precinct 5 said he is shocked half of the programming will be eliminated.

“I’m kind of upset about that, it’s kind of crazy,” said Parker-Renga,

Sharry said cutting programs is preferable to closing libraries for morning or evening hours. The exact programs lost will depend on what funding is provided by the Friends of the Jones Library, she said.

Community services budget

For the second year in a row, Town Meeting added money to the community services budget, this time with the aim of helping local children.

By a 108-24 vote at the second session of annual Town Meeting May 2, members increased the budget by $60,000, from $1.75 million to $1.81 million.

The proposal came from Jennifer McKenna of Precinct 8, who said the extra money should go toward youth programming, including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County and the Amherst Boys and Girls Club, which didn’t get Community Development Block Grant funding this year.

“It feels crucial to me that the budget reflects the community values,” McKenna said.

The $60,000 added to the current year’s budget is paying for outreach to the Latino community by the Amherst Survival Center.

Jim Oldham of Precinct 5 said he supported the extra money because Town Meeting has a long history of promoting social services through the town budget.

Carol Gray of Precinct 7 said the money is more vital in a time when social service programs are being cut and President Donald Trump is attacking immigrant communities.

“Why do we choose to cut the programs that help the neediest in our community?” Gray said.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said he will have to seek a request for proposals for using the extra money, noting it would be illegal to simply give that money to any specific agency.

EMS worries

Though Town Meeting approved a $10.45 million budget for pubic safety, Patricia Church of Precinct 5 said she worries that the town’s EMS service is not being funded adequately.

Jacqueline Maidana of Precinct 5 said she didn’t understand why more firefighter/paramedics weren’t added to the proposal.

“Why isn’t it in this budget?” Maidana said.

Bockelman said additional staffing is needed, but a plan has to be in place to implement it, and there is money available to add positions.

He noted that with Hadley moving to a private ambulance service, Amherst’s medical calls will be reduced by close to 20 percent, or 1,000 calls. That should relieve some of the pressure previously identified in a study of the fire department, though growth in call volume has been centered in Amherst.

By majority vote, Town Meeting approved $2.36 million for the Department of Public Works, though Vincent O’Connor of Precinct 1 tried to refer the article to the Select Board and Finance Committee for more study because it doesn’t move forward in addressing the condition of roads and sidewalks in Amherst.

“My concern is this budget simply doesn’t represent an adequate amount of money to makes roads safe and usable, and our sidewalks safe and usable,” O’Connor said.

But Moderator Jim Pistrang would not accept O’Connor’s motion. “I feel it is in violation of our charge and transition rules,” Pistrang said.

With little discussion, Town Meeting approved a $7.86 million general government budget and $1.44 million for the conservation and development departments.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.cim