AMHERST — Many students and parents expressed concerns to the Amherst School Committee as it opened its fiscal year 2025 Amherst Public Schools budget hearing.

The Feb. 13 School Committee meeting was dominated by concerns raised by students and parents about the impact of loss the district would feel from eliminating an instrumental music teacher for the town’s three elementary schools, and other proposed reductions going into the next budget cycle.

The cut in the instrumental music teacher position would save the district $70,000 and is one of a handful of reductions listed that total $503,971 in savings for the district’s look at the next budget cycle. The School Committee must submit proposed budgets, adopted by the School Committee, to the town manager by April 1.

The removal of an instructional music position and the elimination of one special education instructor at both Wildwood and Crocker Farm schools were the two most discussed items of the cuts being proposed in the $26.71 million FY25 budget plan released by interim Superintendent Douglas Slaughter. These cuts eliciting oral and written feedback from well over 100 families.

While the budget is $777,993, or 3%, over the current year’s $25.93 million, it is $903,971 short of providing level services.

These proposed reductions along with using $400,000 in remaining Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief money, are expected to cover this gap.

Under the proposed changes, band and orchestra would then start in fifth grade next school year. Students currently involved will remain so, but this year’s third grade students will have to wait an extra year to take up an instrument.

Slaughter said while essentially all students currently participating would be able to continue doing so next year, he did acknowledge the delay that would be created and diminish the opportunity for incoming fourth graders to start learning an instrument through school.

“These are decisions not made lightly, and it’s very difficult to make these kinds of cuts,” Slaughter said.

Parents and students made their cases virtually to the School Committee about the impact music has had on them in their schooling.

Kyle Busacker, a parent of Fort River School fifth grader Judah, told the committee the music program engages children socially and interactively while promoting mental health and raising confidence. Judah showcased his skills from a year plus of instruction with a live trumpet performance.

Busacker added access to music class also confronts the “screen time” epidemic.

“This is one of the pivotal programs that has done that for our children,” Busacker added. “So when we have something that we can agree upon across all walks of life, it is alarming that this is what we choose to reduce funding for. I find it preposterous, to be honest.”

One student shared his first-hand experience as well and what being able to play an instrument means to him.

“I believe we should keep the full program around for good because band is great for team building. We are not just a team though. The Crocker band and orchestra is kind of like a family,” said Crocker Farm School sixth grader Declan Prindle. He called the teachers who lead the way, “role models,” for him and his peers.

“Instrumental music can help you learn math skills, like the patterns in the notes. It’s also scientifically proven that people who study music learn better, and it’s a fun way to learn and express yourself,” Prindle said. Following his comments, he then proceeded to play a snippet of “The Lost City” on his saxophone, a piece the school band had previously performed.

Elementary band teacher Ariel Templeton told the committee she and colleagues Heather Samson and Lincoln Smith have deep concerns about losing the fourth-grade strings and band program.

“We are repeatedly told by families that the band and orchestra is what keeps their children going when they are otherwise struggling in school,” Templeton said. “It provides them with a safe space where they feel like they belong.”

Currently 340 students participate in band and orchestra across the town’s three elementary schools.

“Cutting the budget to either of the instrumental program parts will crush many students’ hopes, including mine,” said Odin Monesson-Olson, a Crocker Farm fifth grader.

“When I heard about the budget cuts to the elementary instrumental program, I was heartbroken and still am,” said high school junior Marisol Pierce Bonifaz who has played violin since attending Wildwood. “The elementary music program is crucial to students’ well-being, education and their music development as they enter into middle and high school ensembles.”

Some parents raised concerns about the special education cuts specifically. Parent Angelica Bernal, a member of the Special Education Parent Advisory Council spoke during the hearing and read from a petition letter signed by 165 parents and allies looking for support for the “dedicated and hardworking” special education teachers and paraeducators.

“The COVID-19 pandemic deeply impacted our special education programming, with extensive shortages and staff turnovers in all these areas,” Bernal said. “Our students in special education were some of the most impacted, resulting for many of our children in regressions, anxiety and uncertainty.”

Bernal added special education teachers deserve the support in their critical role of supporting students with these needs.

“We find it deeply troubling that our School Committee has focused on special education programming as a target of proposed cuts. Many of us moved to the school district because of the high reputation of its special education programs and yet have found each year our programs are the first to be on the chopping block. Our community is one that has and continues to profess a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. These cuts fail to reflect this commitment,” Bernal said.

Slaughter explained the district remains committed to the co-teaching model but can’t sustain its current level of commitment moving forward. Still, he said that while students will lose additional support co-teaching can provide, the district would continue to meet the requirements of all individualized education plans, or IEPs.

Other speakers during the hearing emphasized if cuts are necessary, the district should start by looking at other areas to cut that do not have direct impact to classrooms and services. Former School Committee member and parent Katie Lazdowski called on action from the board to reverse course in their planning with so much support for the district’s music opportunities for students and staff for special needs students.

“It’s not that you can’t sustain, it’s that you’re choosing not to,” Lazdowski said. “Think of the students and think of the touch points and the importance of directly impacting the students.”

The School Committee will vote on a final budget on March 19 and will send this to the Town Council for approval by June 30.