AMHERST — During the Finance Committee meeting on May 28, Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman floated the possibility of using $1 million in one-time American Rescue Plan Act funds to support the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools fiscal year 2025 budget.

The possibility of using these funds comes a couple weeks after Bockelman proposed an $18,4 million appropriation, or 4% increase to schools in his full budget presentation to the Town Council, which was shy of the 6% increase for regional schools approved by the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee on April 24.
In order to meet that 6% increase, the town would have to add $355,400 to the regional schools’ portion of the budget on top of the $710,881 that is already allocated in the 4% increase.

To close that 2% gap between what the School Committee approved and what Bockelman suggested, the town manager is looking at the federal ARPA money to cover that additional $355,400.

“We’re working pretty hard to figure out where that 2% would come from,” Bockelman said during the Finance Committee meeting. “We’re looking at ARPA, quite frankly, as this primary source.”

The $1 million of ARPA money was originally allocated to pay for an expanded solar canopy at Fort River School, but Bockelman said it could be redirected to support the FY25 regional school budget.

“If we were to move that direction, you would see a revised budget request from the town manager to the council that the council would then act on,” Bockelman said. “Or, [the town manager] would have an explanation for how we would reach that additional 2%.”

Bockelman said during the meeting that the Town Council has the option to override his proposed budget by a two-thirds vote if it decides to reduce line items to cover the school budget difference, but he cautioned against reducing specific line items such as Other Post-Employment Benefit Funds because he said it would be “damaging” to the town and would negatively impact the town’s bond rating.

He acknowledged that using one-time funds like ARPA is not typically ideal, but he recognizes the constraints the schools are facing.

“These are extenuating circumstances,” Bockelman said. “That’s why I would be recommending that we look at, you know, bringing everyone to the table to really look at what is the long-term sustainable plan.”

Finance Committee member and District 1 Town Councilor Cathy Schoen said she is “totally in favor” of going the 6% route for schools but wondered if there were alternatives for covering the schools since using the ARPA money for solar would give the town a federal rebate.

“It’s a phenomenal investment,” Schoen said.

Finance Committee member Bernard Kubiak indicated that he is worried about jeopardizing the town’s bond rating if they make the wrong decision.

“I don’t want people to discount our bond rating,” Kubiak said. “We haven’t bonded for the elementary school. We haven’t bonded for the fire department. We haven’t bonded for the DPW facility.”

Town Councilor and Finance Committee member Mandi Jo Hanneke suggested looking at reducing other line items in the budget instead of using the one-time ARPA funds. She argued that redirecting the money for one year of the schools instead of using it for solar at Fort River means that the elementary school would lose out on 20 to 30 years of lower operating costs.

She and Town Councilor Andy Steinberg said that they hope the School Committee presents its budget differently next year.

“I would very much be encouraging the School Committee to not use its usual method,” Steinberg said. “I think that that usual method of developing budgets has created a crisis that has exhausted us.”

Bridget Hynes, a district 5 Amherst Regional School District representative, disagreed with using ARPA money to reach the 6% increase in the regional school budget and argued that it is important to be sustainable whenever the town can.

“I think in all the school buildings and especially in my role at the region but on the elementary too, the more sustainable we can use operating funds to increase the sustainability of those budgets the better,” Hynes said. “So I don’t like the idea of using the solar panel money at all.”

In his initial presentation to the council, Bockelman said that the 6% increase could not be met without either reducing other aspects of the budget, utilizing one-time money or seeking an operation budget override of Proposition 2½.