Amherst Regional School Committee looks to launch financial sustainability panel

Amherst Regional High School.

Amherst Regional High School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 06-18-2024 12:11 PM

AMHERST — A fiscal sustainability committee that will undertake strategic planning and identify potential cost savings and new revenue sources for the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools is being established by the Regional School Committee.

Even though development and eventual town votes on the budget for the 2026 fiscal year beginning July 1, 2025 are many months away, the continued challenges expected in the next budget are prompting committee members to begin preparations.

At last week’s meeting, Amherst representative Sarah Marshall said such a committee, which could have representation from each of the four towns, could propose a revised process for getting to appropriate funding, as the towns are unlikely to continue covering deficits in the budget.

“I think that we need to start some blue-sky thinking about what our schools might look like over the longer term,” Marshall said.

The discussion came as the regional budget, with 6% assessment increases for the four member towns that will lead to a $35.27 million spending plan to fiscal year 2025, nears final approval. Amherst Town Council is expected to approve its 6% assessment increase to $18.84 million for the fiscal year 2025 budget at its June 24 meeting by using a combination of recurring money and one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds, joining the previous approvals by Town Meetings in Pelham, Leverett and Shutesbury.

Nevertheless, the spending plan will require some cuts to student-facing positions.

Concerns from Amherst officials about even more challenges in the future are outlined in a draft memo being reviewed by the Amherst Finance Committee that asks the Regional School Committee to begin tackling some of the budgetary issues.

Interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter said preliminary projections show there will be a $1.2 million shortfall in the fiscal year 2026 budget, assuming standard increases in expenses, such as contracts. “We’re in a structural deficit situation with our regional budget; the expenses are rising faster than our revenues typically do,” Slaughter said.

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In general, Slaughter said that overall assessments for the four towns go up about 3% but expenses go up by 4%, and having used the last of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Relief money means a “bigger bite” at the budget next fall. That will make the following year equally difficult, necessitating continued visioning with staff, work that will continue when new superintendent E. Xiomara Herman arrives this summer.

Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao said the new committee will need to delve into a multifaceted problem and find multifaceted solutions, beginning with research into the possibility of a Proposition 2½ general budget override at the local level, advocacy to the state and other ways to generate revenue.

The committee should also look for cost savings, such as building improvements that reduce utility costs or academic adjustments that wouldn’t cut at the heart of what the community wants, said Amherst representative Bridget Hynes.

The creation of the school fiscal sustainability committee comes with the Amherst Finance Committee preparing a draft text calling out “serious concerns about the sustainability of regional school budgets going forward,” citing the $355,400 from ARPA and the regional committee’s decision to use ESSER money to fund operating budgets in the past as contributing to the current crisis.

“We recognize that using one-time ARPA funds does not help the ongoing budget matters,” the memo states. “However, we believed this was our best option for funding the increase above our financial guidelines at this time.”

The advisory recommends beginning the budgeting process earlier, with more so-called four towns meetings: “The lack of any four towns meetings between December and February as projections were revealed contributed to the chaotic nature of this year’s budgeting,” it reads.

The Finance Committee draft requests that the fiscal year 2026 budget not include one-time money and assume communities will only be able to provide year-over-year increases of around 2.5%, not 6%.

“You asked for this additional help this year and assured the towns at the most recent four towns meeting that additional support would not be expected in FY26. We are trusting you to keep this assurance. You have acknowledged that the regional school budget has some significant ongoing structural issues that prevent it from being sustainable.”

Other parts of the memo cite the 25% decline in student enrollment over the past decade yet staffing fluctuations that cause Amherst Regional to have among the highest per student expenditures in Massachusetts.

“In addition to efforts you plan for seeking additional revenue, we urge you to undertake a review of expenses with an eye toward reducing them to align with enrollment in ways that preserve the quality of education provided to our students,” the memo reads. “Achieving a sustainable budget in future years will require both increases in revenues and strategic reductions in expenses that maintain high educational standards.”

Slaughter said capacity in the central office will limit the ability for staff to reduce budgets, and there will need to be hard conversations about what can continue to be offered based on the number of students in an era when schools are competing for students through charter and choice.

“Regardless of the cuts, they’re going to be bad. They’re going to be things you care about,” Slaughter said.

Shutesbury representative Anna Heard said it would be good to get a level-services estimate projection as soon as possible, and she would like to have specifics of what may be cut so that advocacy happens as soon as possible.

Leverett representative Tilman Wolf said there needs to be conversations early about what the exact cuts would be, with specific positions, while acknowledging that just knowing the full-time equivalents would be helpful. “I don’t know I want to be in a situation where we know right now that we’re going to the worst case, we have a really big cut, and then wait until March to have people violently upset with us that we’re cutting positions,” Wolf said.

Slaughter said if he talked specific positions in November, though, employees will start looking for work in December and will begin leaving in January or February.

“We lose good staff when we have those conversations too early and too prospectively, when we don’t really know what those outcomes are going to be,” Slaughter said.

There are also questions about what classes students will sign up for.

Meanwhile, Slaughter presented a fiscal year 2022 audit review of all district processes and procedures, which he said was good news because there were no findings, no material weaknesses or significant concerns, and no indications of fraud or of opportunity for people to commit it.

“The short story is we’re in good shape,” Slaughter said. “Things are fine.

“[The schools are] in a fortunate place where good polices and procedures, and staff, does a good job of taking care of the public’s money,” Slaughter said.

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