Proposed Amherst-Pelham school cuts face strong opposition

  • Amherst Regional High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, February 22, 2021

AMHERST — A $32.01 million budget plan for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools that eliminates almost 16 positions is being met with significant opposition from several recent graduates, many of whom argue that any municipal spending reductions should be borne by the Amherst Police Department.

At a Feb. 8 public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, Superintendent Michael Morris outlined the impacts the current budget plan will have, including larger class sizes at the middle school due to reduction of a half-team, leaving an art teacher position vacant so only one remains at the middle school, and reducing half of the dance elective offerings at the middle and high schools.

“These are not pain-free cuts, just to be really, really clear about it,” Morris said.

Other reductions include leaving a full-time position vacant that has done outreach to underserved youth at the Amherst Family Center and issuing so-called reduction in force notices to three employees. Morris said he is trying to keep these reductions as low as possible due to the impacts on unemployment costs.

In nearly 30 pages of comments emailed to the Amherst Regional School Committee, many argued that Amherst, the largest of the four towns that make up the district with Pelham, Shutesbury and Leverett, should find a way to fund the schools, even if it means reducing public safety expenses.

Several came from alumni still in college, such as Pearl Tulay, a 2019 graduate now at Middlebury College, who wrote, “Keeping this unnecessarily bloated police spending budget while reducing the quality and accessibility of public education for Amherst students is reckless, cruel, and does not represent the morals our community lives by.”

Other comments all use identical language: “Instead of cutting the school budget, the town should cut the police department budget. Keeping a bloated policing budget intact while decreasing support for students and making workers of color vulnerable to layoffs is harmful, misguided, and not who we are as a community. Amherst must do better.”

School Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald said the Amherst Town Council and Select Boards in the other communities are more appropriate forums for weighing school spending versus other town services. But she added that the concerns about the budget are important, and the committee will need to have a conversation about accepting the cuts, and whether they are the right ones to make.

Amherst committee representative Kerry Spitzer said she was heartened to hear from former students, recalling that after she graduated in the late 1990s she participated in efforts to save German language courses from the chopping block. A reduced budget is unfortunate in a year when students need more services, Spitzer said.

Leverett representative Bethany Seeger said the budget is “sad and disappointing,” but wasn’t sure there’s an alternative.

“This is not the time to be cutting education funding,” said Pelham representative Margaret Stancer.

Others from the public, like Allegra Clark, who describes herself as a future parent of a child in the district, wrote, “The proposed layoffs to paraprofessionals and administrative staff will disproportionately affect staff and students of color and will further the inequity magnified by COVID.”

Amherst College student Ben Gilsdorf, who graduated from the high school in 2017, wrote, “We need to invest in our schools now more than ever, so that when this pandemic finally ends, we can send our students back to in-person learning with fully funded schools.”