Amherst school officials consider federal funds for district spending plan

AMHERST — Federal money going to the Amherst Regional School District could be used to even out the budget assessments of the member towns of Amherst, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, potentially creating a pathway to stabilize those costs over the long term.

In a plan unveiled Thursday at a meeting of four-city officials, Superintendent Michael Morris and Douglas Slaughter, the district’s chief financial officer, proposed that a portion of emergency relief funds for elementary and secondary schools , of the federal CARES COVID relief law, be applied to the evaluations of the following year.

Using so-called ESSER funds would prevent any of the assessments from rising or falling more than 4% supporting a $33.17 million spending plan for middle school, high school and Summit Academy.

Morris refers to this as a “guardrail” system that creates ratings that neither rise nor fall too quickly. The idea is to have budgets that can be upheld at annual town meetings or, in the case of Amherst, its city council, at a time when there has been an annual debate over the allocation of expenses. This annual debate has been contentious enough that some officials have expressed concern that the relationship has broken down.

Amherst and Leverett officials generally favor the regional agreement method that relies strictly on each community’s registration, while Shutesbury prefers a state-provided statutory method that is based, in part, on a city’s income and taxable property.

This year, the evaluation formula, agreed last year, uses 65% of the so-called statutory method, to which is added a rolling average of registrations over 5 years.

“I’m in favor of the railing,” said John Trickey, a member of Pelham’s finance committee. “Whoever invented it, I applaud him.”

“I really commend Doug and Mike for doing this job,” said Amherst School Board Member Irv Rhodes.

Under the plan, there is a $408,655 increase in valuations, up to $21.16 million from $20.76 million this year.

If deployed, Amherst’s valuation would rise 2.5%, or $420,175, to $17.17 million, while the three small towns combined would see their valuations drop.

Pelham, however, would see his valuation increase by $37,181, or 4%, to $969,706, and Leverett would increase by $15,744, or 1.1%, to $1.48 million. They would be offset by a decline for Shutesbury of $64,445, or 4%, to $1.55 million.

Amherst officials seemed fine with the adjustments, since the 2.5% increase meets the recommendation of its finance committee.

The plan also has support from Shutesbury, although its valuation would drop further without the safeguards. Ajay Khasha, a member of the finance committee, said this brings the region closer to a fairer valuation formula and greater long-term stability.

Jed Proujansky, a member of Leverett’s finance committee, said the city remains concerned about getting formulas that can lead to cuts and that in some circumstances there may be insufficient funds to run the district properly.

Still, Leverett Select board member Julie Shively said the plan appears to be “good for this year”.

Scott Merzbach can be contacted at [email protected]