Amherst Center is a monthly column that seeks to present local issues from a centrist point of view. It is written by Town Meeting members Baer Tierkel and Clare Bertrand and School Committee member Andy Churchill.
Oh boy, it’s budget time again. And once again, things are not looking good. We’ve talked about the need to increase revenues through responsible economic development, but that hasn’t materialized yet. We’d hoped for more state aid, but our new governor says there’s a $1 billion state deficit, so that doesn’t look promising.
Once again, it’s up to us townspeople to figure out what our priorities are and how to fund them. As we consider service cuts and tax increases, we need to look at our fundamental values. What makes Amherst Amherst? And where is the “tipping point” between cuts that are merely painful and cuts that threaten the very nature of who we are as a town?
As the town faces these questions, we would like to nominate two key values for “fundamental” status: education and diversity.
Education is a cornerstone of Amherst’s identity. From the public schools to the colleges, it is the key factor that distinguishes us from other nice, rural towns: Amherst is a seat of learning. Good schools aren’t just a nice thing to have here – they’re a part of Amherst’s soul.
Diversity – ethnic and socioeconomic – is also a key part of our identity. We celebrate diversity. We appreciate the richness of our multicultural community. We recoil at the idea of becoming simply a rich, white suburb like Longmeadow or Wellesley.
Our public schools are where these two fundamental values come together. They embody both diversity and academic achievement: 29 different languages are spoken in our elementary schools and almost 30 percent of students are low-income, yet over 90 percent go on to college.
As part of the Minority Student Achievement Network (along with districts such as Ann Arbor, Brookline, Cambridge, and Princeton), our schools strive to achieve a rare balance: to be diverse, demanding and supportive. Our schools have established high goals for achievement, they’ve built consistent expectations across school levels, and they’ve put in place a variety of supports to help all kinds of kids from different starting points reach those high goals.
This isn’t easy, and it isn’t cheap. It takes hands-on, personalized attention to take the kids and grandkids of professors, farmers, firemen, managers, hairdressers, therapists, dot-commers, food service workers, etc., and get them all ready for advanced learning and productive citizenship. It takes hands-on, personalized attention to make sure kids with individual needs – hunger, autism, giftedness, etc. – get the supports they need. It takes hands-on, personalized attention to make sure every child, “average” or otherwise, is motivated, helped and pushed to achieve his or her potential.
This is the Amherst standard for good schools: great teachers and support staff providing hands-on, personalized attention to a diverse, high-achieving group of kids.
The budget question now looming is, will we be able to sustain it? The moral question is, who will suffer most if we don’t?
This past year, we cut nine teachers at the high school, five teachers at the middle school, six kindergarten aides, all the elementary library aides, reading and science support staff, an art teacher and others. The year before that, we also cut positions, and the year before that as well. Textbook and library budgets have been cut by 75 percent in the past two years, and field trip budgets have been eliminated.
Class sizes have grown, support programs have been cut back, and every high school student has a mandatory study hall, because of staffing limitations. And that’s where we’re starting from, before the enormous potential budget cuts this year.
These cuts fall hardest on those who need the schools the most: kids who may not have books in the home, who do not have educated parents, do not get family trips or music lessons and other advantages. As we continue to make deep cuts in our schools, many will do fine, because their parents will pick up the slack. But many will not – those who do not enjoy the advantages of the white middle class. If we’re truly committed to meaningful diversity, we need to take a hard look at what further cuts will do to those who depend on schools the most.
Over the past few years, our schools have been caught in a bind. State aid has declined, and costs for things like health insurance and energy have gone through the roof, leading to increases in the cost of our schools upwards of 5 percent. Yet there is a limit on tax revenue increases of 21/2 percent. At some point, something’s got to give.
We have wrestled with the question of an override. The bottom line is, given the cuts the schools have already made over the past few years, we don’t think they can cut their way out of this and retain the values important to our town. Despite the financial sacrifice an override represents for taxpayers, we believe an override will be needed to preserve our key priority of educating the kids who need it most.
Here in Amherst, we talk a good game about valuing education, about celebrating diversity. But these things don’t come free or without sacrifice. Now that the chips are down, will we walk the walk, or is it all just talk?