Amherst-Pelham Regional School District funding formula still controversial

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2017

AMHERST — A formula for how much each of the four towns that make up the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District will contribute toward next year’s $31.47 million budget has yet to be determined, with the ability to pay remaining a point of contention.

For the second year in a row, a discussion is occurring, in advance of the release of the formal budget proposal for the regional schools, for how to create a formula acceptable to officials in Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, and which can also be approved by voters at Town Meetings this spring.

Sean Mangano, business manager for the regional schools, is responsible for finding a formula that is likely to again be modified from the so-called regional agreement formula that was in place from 2008 until last year. At that time, the Regional School Committee approved a revised formula.

Unanimity on changes to the formula was not reached after a meeting involving town and school officials from the four communities last weekend, though George Arvanitis, a member of the Shutesbury Finance Committee, said his town, as well as Amherst and Pelham, are all comfortable using a formula slightly adjusted from the modified alternative method used in fiscal year 2017.

Under that formula, 10 percent of each town’s assessment was based on taxable property values. The change being considered for fiscal year 2018 would be to increase this to 15 percent of taxable property values.

Leverett officials requested Mangano provide an additional budget for review before committing to this revised method.

The regional agreement formula that began in 2008 used a five-year rolling average and equalized valuations to determine each town’s assessment. But with Shutesbury last year pushing for a return to the state’s statutory method, which factors in both income and property values, Mangano created the 10 percent taxable property method that reduced what Amherst and Shutesbury were obligated to pay, and increased the assessments for both Leverett and Pelham.

For the fiscal year 2018 budget, $19.92 million will be paid through assessments. Using last year’s formula, Amherst’s assessment would rise by $382,397, or 2.52 percent, to $15.58 million, while Shutesbury’s would go up by $63,231, or 3.72 percent, to $1.76 million. Leverett and Pelham’s assessments would both decline, but not by as much.

Moving to a 15 percent taxable method would further reduce what Amherst and Shutesbury pay for assessments, and while Pelham would continue to see a decline in its assessment, Leverett’s would go up by $8,031, or .53 percent, to $1.53 million.

According to figures provided by Mangano, Leverett and Pelham would pay more, about $40,000 and $28,000, respectively, under the 15 percent taxable method than the regional agreement, while Shutesbury would pay $48,000 less and Amherst $20,000 less.

The discussions between officials from the towns comes even though a task force known as the Assessment Method Working Group has been exploring alternative formulas, but hasn’t yet found a permanent solution. The group understands that ability to pay should be considered, but there is no consensus on how this should be calculated on a permanent basis.

Select Board member Andrew Steinberg, Finance Committee Chairwoman Marylou Theilman and Interim Co-Finance Director Sonia Aldrich have been part of this group for Amherst.

“The group continues to be meeting and is working hard to find a solution, but it’s a major challenge because of concerns expressed by a couple of the towns,” Steinberg said.

In addition, Amherst officials have said they can’t afford to return to the statutory method, preferred by Shutesbury, as that would lead to big increases that would go above the 2 ½ percent increase recommended by the Finance Committee, and would force school officials to make budget cuts. Using the statutory method, Amherst’s assessment would rise by $674,283, or 4.4 percent.

Mangano will eventually make a recommendation to the Regional School Committee, which than must be approved by all four member towns.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com