Amherst schools may delay 6th grade move to middle school

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Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2023

AMHERST — Despite significant planning over the past two years to relocate sixth graders from the town’s elementary schools to the Amherst Regional Middle School this fall, district leaders are broaching the idea of delaying the move, possibly for three years.

Citing a preliminary $800,000 deficit in next year’s school budget, declining elementary school enrollment and complicated guidelines from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to launch what would be considered a fourth elementary school, Superintendent Michael Morris told the Amherst School Committee on Jan. 10 that he is considering recommending pushing back the move until the fall of 2026.

Postponing the move would mean sixth graders’ arrival at the middle school would coincide with the opening of a new 575-student elementary school, for grades K-5, to replace both Wildwood and Fort River schools.

“When presented with all this new information or evolving information, it caused me to think about ... what’s in the best interest of kids?” Morris said.

Morris said postponing the move would only happen if it’s in the best interests of education in Amherst.

“I know there’s huge risk in even bringing up the conversation tonight,” Morris said.

Both the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional school committees in fall 2021 approved the move of sixth graders from the existing elementary schools, including Crocker Farm.

The new school will be the subject of a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion override vote on May 2.

Staying the course permanently, Morris said, is not possible due to the required change in configuration. “It’s about a when, not an if,” Morris said.

The idea of pushing back the move of sixth graders first came up during a draft staffing plan for elementary schools next year, with some of the 102 responses observing that consolidating at least three classrooms in the elementary schools will mean more space than anticipated.

The $800,000 deficit in the budget being prepared by school finance chief Douglas Slaughter comes at a time when Morris said he understands fiscal challenges are likely to get worse because the schools will not have Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money to fall back on. Morris said he didn’t anticipate the scale of the deficit and that fiscal cliffs he has warned about are coming into clearer focus.

“We were both surprised at the anticipated deficit of $800,000,” Morris said. “We had significant concerns about that.”

With a $25.81 million budget target based on a 2.5% increase under guidelines set by the town’s Finance Committee, spending would be $629,445 above this year’s $25.18 million budget. Instead, the $26.61 million budget has an additional $804,541 that needs to be trimmed.

In addition, Morris said he is concerned about declining enrollment, with 964 students at three schools that is 50 students below projections made in 2019, and DESE’s requirements for starting a new school.

But Morris said three primary reasons for completing the move this fall remain, including the developmental needs for students, the future building project that requires a K-5 model, and the limited space at Wildwood and Fort River prompted by changes that have been made to ventilation to reduce respiratory illnesses.