Amherst regional school board rejects hybrid financial strategy panel

Amherst-Pelham Regional High School.

Amherst-Pelham Regional High School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 05-30-2024 3:58 PM

AMHERST — A proposed panel bringing together public school officials and representatives from the four regional towns, to examine ways to confront both short- and long-term fiscal challenges facing local education, is being rejected by the Regional School Committee.

By a 7-2 vote Tuesday, members voted down Amherst representative Irv Rhode’s idea of creating a committee, involving town staff and Amherst Town Council members, to immediately “review the schools’ short- and long-term fiscal challenges, identify the core issues, and recommend a plan that preserves the excellent education we provide to our children within our limited financial resources.”

“I am strongly opposed to this motion,” said Amherst representative Jennifer Shiao said. “I think it’s inappropriate for Amherst Town Council members, the Amherst town manager and municipal officials from other towns to be involved in school finances at this level. It’s outside of their purview and it’s not appropriate.”

Shiao was joined in voting against Rhodes’ proposal by Amherst representatives Sarah Marshall, Deb Leonard and Bridget Hynes, Pelham representatives Sarahbess Kenney and William Sherr, and Shutesbury representative Anna Heard. Only Leverett representative Tilman Wolf joined Rhodes in supporting the proposal.

Creation of a multiyear school fiscal sustainability plan for the Amherst and Amherst-Pelham Regional schools is referenced in the budget message Town Manager Paul Bockelman recently delivered to the Town Council, which came after the Regional School Committee brought forward a $35.27 million budget proposal for fiscal 2025. That budget proposal would entail an assessment for Amherst that’s about $355,440 more than the town would pay based on budget guidelines set by the Town Council.

“Town officials — and representatives from the region — must engage in a frank and open discussion around the fiscal sustainability of our schools to ensure their long-term stability and success,” Bockelman wrote. “To support that effort, town staff stand ready to engage with the School Committee, Town Council, school staff, other towns, and fiscal experts in the community to work on a multiyear school fiscal sustainability plan.”

Rhodes defended the creation of the new committee as previously having been pitched by former Amherst Finance Diretcor Sean Mangano in 2023.

“We need to be lead on this, rather than be led,” Rhodes said. “It is our responsibility to prepare for what we know will be a very challenging fiscal environment. We cannot do it by ourselves, we can act now to prepare for the beginning of the budget process.”

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As envisioned, Rhodes said incoming School Superintendent Ericilda Xiomara Herman would have co-chaired the committee, a way for her to learn more about the budget for the regional and Amherst schools, financial issues and other underpinnings of the school district, and to begin to work with representatives from the region’s four member towns.

But the Regional School Committee received three written public comments from parents opposing the idea, all suggesting the new superintendent should start first before such a committee is created.

Bockelman said Tuesday he wasn’t aware of the proposal from Rhodes and couldn’t comment on whether such a committee would be similar to what he has envisioned.

Marshall said she is concerned about having another layer in the budget process, even as various serious fiscal issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

“I don’t think we need a committee at all,” Marshall said.

While Leonard said she is looking for objective voices in examining the budget, she worries about ceding responsibility for budget matters to the town.

Hynes said educators and building leaders need to be at the forefront of decisions and that only the school committee is legally required to focus on both educational quality and fiscal responsibility. The idea for the committee is insulting since the town manager’s office would be put over the superintendent, she said.

Similarly, Heard said the entire idea is disrespectful and is about finding ways to shrink what the schools need.

“It’s coming from a place that suggests the committee, the RSC, can’t handle the finances of the school and needs help and guidance to make a better, sustainable financial plan, because clearly it’s not working,” Heard said.

Shiao said her preference would be for a subcommittee of the Regional School Committee to make recommendations to school officials to address long-term financial stability.

Wolf, though, said there is agreement that school officials need to talk more to the towns about the value of programs and education offered. Such a committee would allow more conversations with towns outside of the occasional four-towns meetings, and allow for convergence on a budget number that all can agree on.

“I’m open to fine tuning this, but this seems exactly what we should be doing,” Wolf said.

Rhodes said the committee is the right approach.

“Don’t say to the towns on one hand we don’t want you involved in our finances, we want to have our own committee, yet on the other hand, give us money— that’s unreasonable to make that kind of demand,” Rhodes said.

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