Tuesday, June 05, 2007

School daze

Appropriate to the theme of the evening, we began with a gentle reminder: Boys and girls – behave yourselves! No taunting, hitting, biting or spitballs, especially during tally votes. Apparently, there had been an incident…

After a procedural motion to postpone Community Services, we took up the school budgets, as had been scheduled by a previous procedural motion.

Superintendent Jere Hochman began with a presentation (an abbreviated version of this) about the schools, as a way of grounding the discussion.

Finance Committee Chair Alice Carlozzi made the Finance Committee’s recommendation of $19,456,715, a 1% budget. Details of her recommendation are available in the FinCom Report.) She called it an “austerity budget,” and said it was not a “disaster.” She said that the majority of the School Committee recommended it for the same reason that the FinCom does – it offers an opportunity for the Town to create a multi-year financial plan to begin next year, and to not jeopardize that opportunity with a small override this year.

School Committee Chair Andy Churchill said the School Committee had voted to support the 1% budget 4-1, even though they weren’t happy about it. He said that the failure of the override, desire to not use reserves and general limited available funds made them conclude that this was the best option. He said that all the SC members are also members of the Regional School Committee, and that the regional budget situation is more desperate, and the overage of its 3% will probably have to come from reserves. He said that adding more to the elementary school budget would be too much to ask for from reserves, and said they didn’t want to doom next year’s override prospects. He said that he was surprised to have a lot of parents urging the School Committee to hold the line at 1% this year. He said that they can scrape by at these levels this year but that the excellence of both the regional and elementary schools are at risk, and talked about the significant cuts that have been made over the last few years. He also highlighted some special successes in student achievement and mentoring programs. He spoke of challenges posed by the uneven distribution of low-income families among the elementary schools, and the challenges inherent in the physical space of the aging building.

Alisa Brewer reported the Select Board’s unanimous support for the recommendation.

Members asked about the particulars of delaying the musical instrument programs by a year (starting strings in 4th grade instead of 3rd, and winds and percussion in 5th grade instead of 4th;) and asked the usual questions about the ratios of staff and dollars to students.

Dick Mudgett proposed an amendment for a 3% budget ($19,842,043,) calling a 1% elementary school budget “highly discriminatory” as the regional schools are expected to get 3%. He talked about how crucial learning is at the elementary level and about the good experiences his children had had in the system, and the expense and necessity of quality special ed services.

Chrystel Romero, who cast the lone dissenting vote on the School Committee’s recommendation, proposed an amendment for a 2% budget ($19,649,715.) She said the biggest priority is more teachers in order to reduce class sizes. She said that Town Meeting votes a bottom-line number for the schools and that the school committee then directs the Superintendent how to spend it, and said that was different from the Town situation. She said that the school budget was created before she became a school committee member and it doesn’t represent her priorities. She said that if you want different priorities you need to change the School Committee membership. (Ouch! And kind of a funny thing for the only non-elected SC member to say.) She said the schools shouldn’t have to scrape by and that the future was too unpredictable to sacrifice this year for a better expected outcome next year.

Vince O’Connor proposed a budget that gives Medicaid and MassHealth reimbursements back to the elementary schools ($19,581,715.) He said that the schools do all the work for this money, but it gets deposited in Town accounts, unlike at the regional level, where he said they keep those funds. He said the School Committee had been trying to resolve this with the Finance Committee for three years, and he cited a bunch of arguments against doing this that he called “red herrings:” that the money is already allocated elsewhere; that other departments would then want the revenues they generate; something I didn’t understand about the reserve situation being different than it was last year; and that doing this isn’t required by law. He explained why he found those arguments uncompelling. He said his proposal would provide funding for two additional teachers.

Ms. Carlozzi said the FinCom didn’t favor any of the proposals, because any increase would compound the shortfalls projected for FY09, and she repeated cautions against using reserves or having a small override. She said the reimbursement issue has been under discussion but that they ran out of time for this budget, and said that there are details that need to be worked out.

I find the reimbursement issue an interesting one – it is the same one the library is concerned with regarding their overdue fines. Certainly it seems fair and reasonable that the entity that took in the money should keep the money – leaving aside the whole can of worms about whether the Clerk’s office should keep passport fees and whether the I.T. department might as well start selling something too – but it also seems irrelevant. Going back to the budget-as-pie analogy, if the slice we are going to cut for the elementary schools is yay big, then where the funds come from that make up that slice hardly matters. We aren’t going to give them their full slice PLUS the reimbursement money – that money is already figured in to their slice. Without the reimbursement money, the slice would be the same size; the funds would just come from other sources. Despite having sat through numerous meetings where the term “revolving fund” is tossed around in relation to this issue, I don’t actually know what that means. If it means that it is separate from the rest of the pie, I don’t think that changes my point. If you would be expecting them to get $X from the revolving fund, then you would reduce the size of their pie slice accordingly. At least that’s how I would expect it to work. I may not agree with Mr. O’Connor too often – an understatement – but he is certainly intelligent and well-informed, so I would want to know his take on this. But not at the 11th hour.

Mr. Churchill said that it was odd to be a School Committee member and be in the position of recommending the lowest budget amount. He said it is not a matter of strange priorities but a practical question of where additional money would come from. He said that class size is the main concern and that there are a few places where that is problematic, but he read the averages for classes in each grade in each school which were in the teens and low twenties, and said that these were not the classes of 25-27 students that they had been afraid they might have. He said the override didn’t pass and that left no viable source for additional funds.

Mr. Kusner said that the Select Board had no official position on the amendments but that he would urge support for a higher number, saying that elementary education is one of the most crucial things we do as a society.

A member asked how the different proposals would impact the schools. The Superintendent said that for budgeting purposes, they use an average of $50,000 per teacher, so the different proposals would provide for a couple of new teachers. He said that based on analysis of the numbers Mr. Churchill had cited, the priority for placing teachers would be determined. But he said that it wasn’t as easy as looking at the simple class size number. He said it is rare that a class has all its students all day long because children with different needs and abilities work with specialists for some lessons.

One member talked about MCAS issues at Crocker Farm and how cuts at the elementary level mean more needs aren’t being met, and that the problems for those students will get worse as they advance to higher grades. Another spoke about the need to focus personnel on those working directly with students, how Amherst’s SPED money could support a paraprofessional for each student, and how the State and Federal mandates and their required paperwork need to be addressed because they negatively impact the system. Elaine Brighty of the School Committee, agreed about the mandate and paperwork problems, and said that the priority is the adults working with children, and that one paraprofessional per special ed student wouldn’t address all needs – some kids need multiple specialists.

There were questions about whether more money would be spent on staffing if it were voted (probably,) whether those making amendments have to identify the source of funds (no, but it’s helpful,) about the status of projected town and school reserves (around $4.2M for the town and more detail to follow on the schools,) and what class size goals are (the targets are 22 for K-2nd, 23 for 3rd and 4th, and 24 for 5th and 6th grades.)

Brian Morton of the FinCom presented another great graph of historical and projected reserves, reserve usage, State aid and bonding level recommendations. This is always interesting and he explains it very well.

A member suggested that an override or reserves were not the only options for finding new revenues: cuts could be made from other parts of the budget, such as the capital plan. Ms. Carlozzi said that capital spending has been diminished and diverted for several years and that it is important to maintain a balance between the services we provide and the equipment and facilities we need to support them.

The question was called and then we came to a vote, starting with the highest amount first. The 3% Mudgett amendment failed decisively; the 2% Romero amendment failed decisively; the reimbursement-based O’Connor amendment failed somewhat less decisively, but a tally vote was called for, confirming the defeat: 55 Yes to 141 No. I voted No.

The subsequent voice vote for the 1% Finance Committee recommendation – $19,456,715 – was nearly unanimous with the typical smattering of Nos.

On to the Regional School budget.

This one boils down to the 3% recommendation from the Regional School Committee –which all legal sources agree that Amherst is going to have to pay regardless of how we vote, because it has already been agreed to by the three other towns in the region – versus the Finance Committee’s 2% recommendation, which is both a last-gasp hope for a reprieve and intended to make a statement to the other towns that Amherst is in tough financial shape. Ms. Carlozzi said that she doesn’t think anything is likely to change with the other towns and that it is expected that we will have to pay the 3%.

I just can’t bear to summarize again details related to the whole three-out-of-four towns thing or the iterations of the interpreting the revised statute. Feel free to consult a couple of previous blog entries and multiple SB recaps if you want or need more info on that.

Other than that stuff…

Ms. Brighty said the regional budget is very different than the elementary budget, which is mostly made up of people. She said the region has capital, facility and transportation costs, as well as the costs of paying tuition of students from Amherst who attend other schools (the elementary budget has that too, but less.) She said that the cost of paying tuition for students attending charter schools is expected to be more than $500,000 in FY08.

Mr. Weiss said that the Select Board had supported the 3% recommendation 3-2, and that he had proposed a compromise to the Regional SC that morning, whereby Amherst would pay 2% and that the additional 1% would come from the Region’s E&D funds, but that there had been no agreement on the proposal.

Ms. Brighty explained that E&D stands for excess and deficiency, and that those funds are not supposed to be less than 3.5% of the budget and would be preferred to be at 5%. She said that the region doesn’t have a town’s reserve fund to tap for a new boiler or to fix a roof leak or to cover higher-than-anticipated bills – these types of expenses are covered by E&D money. She said that what that total would be at the end of this fiscal year is uncertain because the revenues and expenses need to be reconciled. In response to other questions, she said that the amount of E&D would affect bonding for borrowing, and that that fund has been drained in recent years to pay bills.

Dr. Hochman said that the Regional SC members had been reluctant to consent to using E&D money as a last resort to eliminate the second study hall, so while he couldn’t speak for them, he wasn’t optimistic that they would accept its use for Mr. Weiss’ proposal. In response to a member’s question, he explained the Pelham Town Meeting situation which some seem to believe suggests that they might stray from the 3%. He said that in early May, Pelham TM had overwhelmingly approved both the per-pupil assessment method and the 3% budget. He said there were a couple of issues about their elementary school budget, but that that had also ultimately passed overwhelmingly. He said they will reconvene on June 13th to complete their work and vote on the entire budget again.

A member wanted clarification on what the E&D amount is currently, having recently heard $1.3M and $1.5M, and the suggestion that they might be 3.5% of the school budget, which he said would equal $977,000. Ms. Brighty said that it is a moving target, but that best estimates are $1.3M to $1.5M.

Ms. Brighty talked about how much fixed costs had increased since FY05, particularly health insurance and utilities, and the significant cuts that had been made.

Ms. Carlozzi said that the region is a separate legal entity and can’t be told what to do, but that Town Meeting can advise. She said that if the 3% is pursued, we will pay it because we have to, and that the FinCom is reluctantly willing to take that money from reserves, but is not willing to use reserves for any other overages.

Mr. Weiss reiterated the Select Board’s mixed vote to support the 3% recommendation, and said that the region’s E&D money was well above the 3.5% that is required.

A member asked what would happen if Amherst rejected the 3% – would it require a new Town Meeting vote? Ms. Carlozzi said that no further action would be needed – Amherst would have to pay and would pay.

So it was time to vote, and the larger Regional SC amount was first. A tally vote was called for, and that amount was rejected, 76 Yes and 114 No. I voted Yes.

This was a little tough. I obviously favor the Finance Committee recommendations, and I am firm in my “no override this year/no use of reserves” stance. But the regional agreement trumps that which is in Amherst’s individual financial interest. What good is an agreement if you are only going to go along with it when it works to your advantage? If Amherst, as the much larger town, is going to lord its weight over the smaller towns, then we’ve abandoned fairness for might. Not only is that yucky on the face of it, but it could really derail the important cooperative relationship that enables the region to function effectively.

And support of the 2% FinCom recommendation is largely symbolic.

So I voted for the Regional School Committee’s 3% amount, and once that failed, I voted for the Finance Committee’s 2% amount. And with that, and with none of the histrionics I had expected from this discussion, the school budgets are now blessedly done. I hope.


Richad Morse said...

You talk about the Regional Agreement as if it started yesterday. I don't think that the other towns of the Region owe us anything, but there has been a good deal of give-and-take within the Agreement over the years. I have a family member who in recent years served on the Finance Committee in Pelham. He speaks with considerable admiration of former Amherst Select Board Chairman Carl Seppala and his efforts to cut through the endless talk to alter an assessment formula that was killing Pelham several years ago.

Others may correct me on my facts above, but I believe your morally sound argument fails to acknowledge some important history between the four towns. As a result, at this point, the other three communities have little reason to feel pushed around and disrespected by Big Brother Amherst. But we do have to be careful about it.

I would submit that we have not abused our role in the Regional Agreement.

LarryK4 said...

Funny thing, if you scroll down to your Friday entry where you talk about the “low point” of your town meeting experience for the night it matches up with the incident that instigated Mr. Moderator’s scolding of the assembly. Hmmmmmm.

What I loved about the evening is how slick Ms. Brighty is with figures. Kind of backfired however, because eventually she admitted the Excess and Deficiency Account had $1.3 million in it and the state only requires 3.5% of the total $27 million budget (to preserve that almighty Bond Rating) or just under one million.

So even if they spent $300,000 from their savings they would be fine (unless of course that boiler blew up… but then didn’t we do a $22 million renovation only ten years ago?)

Jackie Churchill said...

On your aside regarding Chrystel Romero's comment on electing new SC members: As an appointed SC member, she will need to run for election next year, so her statement may have been intended to reflect that, too.

While I'm not a TM member, I want to add my voice to the many out there who are very thankful for your tireless efforts to keep people informed, both here and on inAmherst.com!

Stephanie O'Keeffe said...

Thanks to all for commenting.

Rich – I don’t have the benefit of the historical knowledge on the Regional Agreement, so I voted based on what I do know – and a compelling part of that is last year’s bail out of Amherst by Leverett and Shutesbury to ease our transition to the new system. Kind of makes it even crummier for us to try to wriggle out of this – just my opinion.

Larry – I hope my previous post about the tally vote thing doesn’t make me a tattle-tale (to continue the playground behavior motif.) I appreciated the Moderator’s reminder for us all to respect each other and the process.

Jackie – Thanks, and that’s a good point about Ms. Romero’s comment. Also, my wording about her not being elected was imprecise. She obviously was elected by the School Committee and Select Board, and in fact was nearly elected by popular vote as well.

Nina Wishengrad said...

To all my fellow parents, I MADE A MISTAKE! Yes, I voted "no" to the School Board's recommended regional budget. I really wanted to avoid going into reserves, and had decided to go with the Finance Committee when, suddenly, a little selfish voice whispered in my ear, "Zoe's going into Middle School. You moved her for the schools. You know you want it..." at which point I raced up to the stage and asked for my pink card back! Unfortunately, I asked Hilda Greenbaum. I am now going to make a motion that we add a new procedure to our bubbly proceedings: the I-Changed-My-Mind Tally Vote. The cards will be aubergine, which Harrison will persist in calling lilac, and all counting will be done by independent outsiders. Hiring for those positions will begin immediately, with all candidates requiring a 7/8ths majority of Town Meeting members for approval. Positions will be paid for out of the Select Board T-shirt fund.

Larry Orloff said...

It's an ironic reflection on the so-called "Sustainable Amherst Rating" system that it assigned a rock-bottom score of -18 to Vince O'Connor, who forcefully advocated adding $19,581,715 to FinCom's budget for the elementary schools.

Gavin Andresen said...

Mr. Orloff:

I'm confused-- are you saying that Mr. O'Connor's proposal to spend more money than we have is "sustainable"?

Larry Orloff said...

Mr. Andresen,

"Sustainable Amherst" is Amherst Central's terminology for support of the schools.

As Mr. Weiss often points out in regard to the difference between the SB and FinCom budget proposals, one can advocate for more funding of one service if one is willing to also allocate less to another.

Chris Hoffmann said...

Larry Orloff said...

Mr. Andresen,

"Sustainable Amherst" is Amherst Central's terminology for support of the schools.


Having worked with Andy, Baer, and Clare and read many of their editorials and personal emails to many lists, I can say that Sustainable Amherst is mostly about living within our means and finding new revenue sources. I can barely recall schools being mentioned at all!

Supporting the schools is obviously important to them, but not at the expense of other core services or digging ourselves even deeper into debt!

Gerry Weiss said...

But why does living within our means require defunding human services, and swimming pools? For me "sustainable" needs to include keeping Amherst the total town many of us moved to, many of us love. The total town is comprised of not just our police, our DPW, our schools, but a community that provides for everyone who lives here, not just those with means. I can move to many towns that provide good police departments and good schools. I for one don't want to live in a town that won't provide for those who struggle through their days. I for one, want to live in a town that is a community. A community, for me, is everyone who lives here. For me, my life is diminished when people that live in my community suffer in ways I don't suffer, when people in my community are hungry, can't pay bills, can't go to work because their child is sick, heat their apartment with their oven, are abused, discriminated against, are so depressed they can barely care for their children, who live in apartment complexes that don't have hoses and sprinklers, who don't have cars. I for one, will carry with pride, my low score on the website. Let us please broaden the concept of sustainable to include truly sustaining our community.

Richard Morse said...

What's uncanny about Mr.Weiss's comments is that he thinks that those of us who scored high on that website simply don't care, that we don't hold in our mind's eye the experience of the people he cited above.

When he says that "I can move to many towns that provide good police departments and good schools", and ignores how those agencies are suffering in this budget,and ignores how those agencies have served for decades the young and the poor, he is displaying a blind spot that you could drive a truck through.

This community will not "defund" human services unless it chooses to. Nobody took away our private check-writing abilities. What Town Meeting decided was not to subsidize human services at the expense of other vital, irreplacable services that have no access to private money.

Gerry Weiss said...

I can see how Mr. Morse misinterpreted my comments. I apologize for not being clearer. I trust that there were "no" voters for human services and pools who contribute generously with money and time to the common welfare. I also trust that there were "no" voters who do neither. I trust that Rich is among the generous, and that if more people contributed, the private sector would be able to do the job.

I don't trust that this will happen. That's why I believe in using our tax dollars to serve the common good. The Feds have virtually abandoned this concept and the state has followed suit. Most countries in Europe know this and the taxpayers have no problem with their taxes being used for social well being. The US had a similar pact with our citizens, but that all changed with Reagan. You and I saw it happen in the 80's. As a social worker, I saw its immediate and widespread devistation to social welfare - housing, mental health services, child care, food.

Perhaps the main difference we have Rich, is that you believe the private sector in Amherst will get the job done and I don't believe that. The proof could be to look at the books of the agencies that have been cut for '08. Speaking to the directors of Family Outreach and Big Brothers/Big Sisters, it seems likely that those town funds will not be made up by private donations and services will be cut. The Family Center has already cut summer hours because of the town funding cut. So, the town will choose to defund human services, and I believe that is where government comes in.

Keith Ulrich said...

Mr. Weiss,

Whether or not Mr. Morse misinterpreted your comments, you have ignored his.

They boil down to this question: If the town government does not adequately fund the schools, police, and fire departments, then who will?

If we cut public funding for human services, maybe private citizens will step up and fill the gap, and maybe they won't.

But when funding is cut for the aforementioned agencies -- which provide literally vital services to everyone, rich and poor alike -- we can be certain that no one will come to their rescue.

Keith Ulrich

Gerry Weiss said...

Keith, perhaps we need to define adequate. The SB tried to achieve a balance of cuts. We (except Alisa) felt that the cuts to social services, including the pools were too severe (82% cut in human services; close 1 pool and 2 wading pools) and wanted to lessen those cuts within the 1% budget. I would have opposed such deep cuts in other town services just as I opposed these. You and I differ in where the line might be when town services are cut to the point where they don't work. I didn't feel we got to that point with Fire/police/public works/schools; but did get there with social services, which I believe are vital, are not peripheral, and are our responsibility to provide. I also did not vote to cut any area of the FinCom/Town Manager budget except for General Gov't. You seem to be forgetting that the disputed votes were social services vs. savings, not vs schools, etc. I did not and do not believe it was right to bank that extra $100K at the expense of the pools and human services.
Let me ask you a question: If the SB had managed to reconstruct the budget so that the budget that came to Town Meeting had built into it the $100K cut in General Gov't and had a human service funding of $66K and had the pools funded, would you have made motions to cut those services in order to put more money into savings?