Proposed Amherst school budget restores art, tech teachers to full time

AMHERST — Arts and technology teachers at the town’s three elementary schools, whose work weeks were scaled back this school year, are having their positions restored to full time in a $25.53 million school spending plan for fiscal year 2023.

The Amherst School Committee voted 4-0 Tuesday, with member Irv Rhodes absent, to endorse an elementary school budget that is $1.14 million, or 4.7% higher, than this year’s $24.39 million budget.

In doing so, though, the committee is asking for $25.11 million from the town, or $52,800 more than the $25.05 million level-services budget outlined by Superintendent Michael Morris and Douglas Slaughter, the school finance chief, that conformed with the Finance Committee’s guidance to keep to a 2.7% increase.

The budget will also depend on $419,931 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money from the federal CARES Act, which is $26,400 more than Morris and Slaughter proposed using in the budget.

For School Committee members, though, the restorations were critical, after hearing and reading feedback from parents, students and teachers about the negative impact caused by cutting art and technology instruction to four days per week at Crocker Farm, Wildwood and Fort River schools, and cutting back on the integration of those subjects into the larger curriculum.

“It’s a no-brainer to add these positions back,” said committee member Jennifer Shiao. “It’s a relatively small amount of money for a really large impact.”

Committee member Ben Herrington said he was not comfortable using only ESSER funds, comparing it to adding a ladder to a cliff, because of its temporary nature. But Herrington also worried what would happen if the budget is not approved by the Town Council.

“I’m more in favor of asking the town for more money to fund our arts and technology than to shore it up with temporary money,” Herrington said.

A compromise that committee members could live with came from member Peter Demling, who suggested that two-thirds of the necessary added spending come from the town, and the remainder from ESSER.

Still, Demling said he is not comfortable with a strategy of not having a long-term plan for arts and technology.

“It does really concern me what’s going to happen in a couple of years, with no plan,” Demling said,

Committee Chairwoman Allison McDonald, too, said she fears a future School Committee meeting where more cuts will have to be made when the ESSER money runs out.

The budget next goes to Town Manager Paul Bockelman so that it can be incorporated into the municipal budget. The full Amherst budget, including government, school and library operations, has to be adopted by the Town Council.

Though there were also suggestions of adding a psychologist and other interventionists due to the impacts of the pandemic on children, committee members opted to focus on the arts and technology.

“Restoring those specials teachers to full time will enable each schools’ art and tech teachers to build those much-needed trust and relationships with our children that they deserve,” said parent Annaliese Kittrell.

Kittrell also said art helps to bring confidence to children like her daughter, Adela, 7. Adela addressed the School Committee by saying that art and technology are important to her because it “helps me be myself.”

Nicole Singer, an art teacher at Fort River, said teachers want to provide more access to art and technology and create interdisciplinary and project-based learning, which can only be done if teachers have more time for high-quality, multifaceted education.

Several written comments, too, came from advocates for art and technology studies.

“It shouldn’t have to be said that our students desperately need consistency and support for arts integration and technology,” wrote Laura Melbin, a parent of a Wildwood sixth grader. “We have already lost fabulous educators because of the budget cuts.”

“Art is such an important way for children to communicate,” wrote Allegra Clark, who will have a Wildwood kindergartner in the fall. “And in the trauma of the past two years, art offers an important outlet for healing.”

Anita Shire

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