Amherst school board finds funds to restores art, tech teachers to full time

  • Allison McDonald, chair of the Amherst School Committee. STAFF FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, July 18, 2022

AMHERST — Arts and technology teachers at Amherst’s three elementary schools will resume working full-time schedules this fall, despite the Town Council’s rejection of the School Committee’s spending plan for the next school year.

Even though the Town Council in June approved a $25.05 million fiscal year 2023 budget for the elementary schools, less than the $25.11 million requested by the School Committee, committee members at their June 28 meeting found the $53,400 needed to restore the positions.

The committee voted unanimously to transfer the needed money from what is known as the control accounts, which has $623,571 in the proposed budget, to the salary line item in the $6.55 million available for regular education.

The committee’s decision means the teachers at Wildwood, Fort River and Crocker Farm schools will be back to full time, rather than the 80% positions that existed over the past school year. Extensive feedback from both parents and staff supported the idea of better integration of the subjects into the curriculum, and preventing staff departures for full-time jobs in other districts.

Superintendent Michael Morris told the committee that the control accounts are for unexpected expenses the schools might encounter, such as maternity leaves and grant shortfalls, but he was comfortable that there are minimal risks at this time due to financial trends going in the right direction.

“There’s definitely a risk here and we could be having difficult conversations in the fall,” Morris said.

Morris cautioned that should the situation change, there could be a need to freeze spending.

The original plan from the School Committee was to have money added to the budget by the Town Council, combined with $26,400 additional in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money from the federal CARES Act, bringing that spending up to $419,931.

While the restoration of these positions could have come from taking the full amount from ESSER, Morris advised against that, noting it was not a sustainable way to put together a budget. The plan adopted ensures that long-term funding will be there for keeping the positions full time.

Still, committee members expressed disappointment in the process that led to this outcome, with members noting that the town’s Finance Committee put out guidelines to follow and there was uncertainty about whether those were recommendations or a decree.

Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald said there is now a sense of distrust between town and school officials, in part because it was viewed that the committee was not following the process set by the Town Council.

But McDonald said the Budget Coordinating Group, which strives to bring representatives together from schools, town and libraries before budget season, needs to do a better job so everyone understands the expectations around spending.

Committee member Peter Demling said the schools have always been a “model fiscal partner” and he didn’t like what occurred.

“I feel that the discussion has just completely ignored the history of this committee and the modesty of this increase we’ve asked for,” Demling said.

Committee member Irv Rhodes said the outcome shows the need for gathering more support when seeking additional funding.

“Our posture cannot be one of passivity,” Rhodes said. “Our posture cannot be one in which we don’t engage our allies in our community for our cause.”