AMHERST — Amherst’s Finance Committee is endorsing the $89.9 million fiscal year 2023 budget proposed by the town manager, leaving in limbo additional money sought by the Amherst School Committee to restore elementary school arts and technology teachers to full-time positions.
The committee last week voted 5-0, joined in support by its three resident members, to recommend Town Manager Paul Bockelman’s spending plan to the full Town Council, even though that plan excludes $52,800 from the elementary school budget.
The $25.53 million budget request approved in March by the Amherst School Committee is above the guidelines set by the Finance Committee, but was done so that, in combination with $26,400 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund money from the federal CARES Act, arts and technology teachers will go back to full time, rather than remaining at 80%.
Restoring art and technology instruction to five days a week at Crocker Farm, Wildwood and Fort River schools ensures these subjects are better integrated into the larger curriculum, according to the School Committee and teachers and staff who have advocated for it.
At least nine of the 13 members of the Town Council, for a two-thirds majority, could opt to override the town manager’s recommendation and support the higher school spending.
But councilors who are on the Finance Committee are not advocating for this.
Council President Lynn Griesemer said School Committee and school officials need to decide how to spend money for the schools, but she argues that if this is a priority, the money can be found elsewhere in the school budget.
“We gave them guidelines, and they came back with something above the guidelines,” Griesemer said. “That sets a precedent that, in the years of the council, which are short, we have not seen. If we start doing it now, there’s no end.”
In a tight budget world that could be coming in future years, District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen said she couldn’t support the added spending. “Going over the amount right now doesn’t make sense to me,” Schoen said.
Schoen said she strongly supports having arts and technology full time, but the schools could do this without the added money.
Resident member Matt Holloway said $54,000 is a surprisingly small amount to be controversial and could be found within the school budget. “That number to me, doesn’t indicate to me a large structural problem,” Holloway said.
“I don’t feel this is an area we should overrule the town manager’s recommendation,” Holloway said.
Resident member Bob Hegner said that he is confident Superintendent Michael Morris will develop a plan. “I do think the superintendent can find the funds within the town manager’s budget,” Hegner said.
Resident member Bernie Kubiak, too, said money should be found in the school budget, and the Finance Committee could take a wait-and-see approach. “I appreciate the advocacy that has been shown by some folks,” Kubiak said.
District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam spoke in favor of the added money, though she is not on the Finance Committee, and suggested that the School Committee ask was reasonable. “I don’t think you’re empowering an out-of-control School Committee,” Pam said.
Pam said the Finance Committee should be making a strong statement in support of educators. “I think the budget should include five-day funding for art and technology,” Pam said.
District 1 Councilor Michele Miller wondered if the debate over the extra money being requested was partly a power struggle that is not being spoken to publicly, and if there was an elephant in the room, or an underlying issue, that is manifesting the controversy.
“The request, to me, has more symbolism than anything,” Miller said.
Griesemer pointed to discussions by the Budget Coordinating Group, which brings the town, schools and library together to talk about budget matters. At that time, it was agreed that an extra $300,000 would go to start up the Community Responders for Equity, Safety and Service program, even though this would be new spending on the town side that would not be done similarly for the schools and library.
But Griesemer said CRESS, as a police alternative, will benefit the entire community, including schools and children.
“For me, these are the guidelines and this is where we are,” Griesemer said. “If they want to have a battle fine, I’m ready.”
Scott Merzbach can be reached at [email protected]