Amherst’s $24.5M school budget on the table

  • Amherst Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Saturday, March 07, 2020

AMHERST — A dual-language program for Amherst primary students will be able to expand next school year, with other staff and programs retained at the town’s elementary schools, as part of a $24.51 million budget proposal presented this week.

“We’re maintaining the things we’ve been doing,” Douglas Slaughter, finance director of the schools, told the Amherst School Committee at its Monday meeting.

The $24.51 million budget is $667,488, or 2.8% higher, than the current year’s $23.84 million budget, meets guidance provided by town officials and preserves existing staff, class sizes and programs, including the integration of arts and garden learning.

Outside of salaries, which are going up by $467,595 from $16.77 million to $17.24 million based on contracts, the budget has a modest amount of additions totaling $208,341.

The budget is scheduled to be adopted by the School Committee on March 17 and forwarded to Town Manager Paul Bockelman on April 1. Bockelman is required to have the spending plan incorporated into a municipal budget that he will deliver to the Town Council on May 1. Councilors have until June 30 to adopt the budget.

The dual-language program, known as Caminantes, began for 40 kindergarten students at Fort River School last fall, about equally divided between primary Spanish speakers and primary English speakers, and will add first graders in fall 2020. It is being supported, in part, through a grant from the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The new spending in the budget includes $46,390 for a one-year position in which a teacher will be hired to shepherd through changes recommended in an English Language Arts review and $60,000 to cover salaries of three paraeducators who will be hired based on student needs.

There are numerous adjustments in the budget, including a $50,000 payment for a specialized special education program for an out-of-district student, a $50,000 reduction with no requests for teacher sabbatical, and a $170,000 addition from the revised strategic partnership between the town and the University of Massachusetts related to the cost of educating students who live in tax-exempt university housing, notably North Village Apartments.

Superintendent Michael Morris said the bulk of the UMass contribution, which totals $185,000, goes toward the elementary schools, rather than the regional schools, because of the 50 or so public-school students who live in tax-exempt housing, around 90% are in sixth grade or younger.​​​​

The contribution was calculated by representatives from the Donahue Institute at UMass.

“We came up through what all parties believed was a fair number looking at various scenarios stemming from the Donahue Institute report, and took into account funds required specifically for staffing given the additional costs that the district manages to support all students,” Morris said.

Morris told the committee that the budget additions, which also include money needed for continued exploration of having sixth graders move to the middle school and making the school buildings more sustainable, wouldn’t have been able to happen without the university support.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.