School meeting says no to extra social worker

AMHERST – Voters at the Amherst School Deliberative Session last week rejected a bid to add money to the budget to hire another social worker at the middle school.

The motion came from Lisa Eastland, chairwoman of school district’s finance committee, who told residents and school officials that the middle school is “prime fertile ground” for having an impact on mental health and the social worker would benefit everyone, including those who might be at risk but are not identified as needing help.

But Meg Beauchamp, director of student services for the district, while acknowledging that there are a number of students with problems, said the three mental health professionals on staff at the school are sufficient.

“We have a great number of students who struggle with social and emotional anxiety … we do see more and more of it,” Beauchamp said.

Lisa Femia-Hou, the middle school dean of students, talked about the support available at the school, including professional development so that teachers and aids can better deal with students with problems.

And board member John Glover said he has great trust in the school administrators’ ability to improve the lives of their students while keeping costs reasonable.

“I’m not comfortable adding money” when there has not been a study of the need,” he said, and moderator Nate Jensen reminded meeting participants that they can add money to a warrant article but can’t bind the school board as to its use.

George Bower said it is essential to deal with emotional problems before young people reach high school.

“I don’t hear a concerted effort to identify problems,” he said, and asked the board and adminstrators to come to the next annual meeting with full information on programs and how effective they are. If students’ problems aren’t fixed by the time they complete middle school it can be too late, he said.

Resident Bruce Barter asked board members of they feel there is adequate staff at the school and Vice Chairwoman Elizabeth Kuzsma said yes.

Eastland’s proposed amendment to add $160,000 to the budget failed by an overwhelming show of cards, and the district’s $26 million budget will go on the ballot for the March 13 election unchanged.

Also on the ballot will be cost items relating to collective bargaining agreements for support staff and teachers.

The five-year pact with the Amherst Support Staff Association moves away from an 86 percent district contribution to health insurance to a system where the district contributes a flat dollar amount, regardless of plan. There is also a higher employee co-pay for prescription drugs.

The 68 support staff will get two additional paid holidays and five snow days, giving them “a more stable and secure work environment,” Glover said.

The teachers’ four year agreement – reached after many months of negotiations – also includes teacher concessions on health insurance as well as on retirement benefits, which had been the chief obstacle to settlement. Those benefits will gradual phase into a 401(k)-like plan.

Board member Terri Behm gave an emotional defense of teachers, who worked with a frozen contract for three years while doing “incredible work” … neither side got everything they wanted,” she said.

Also on the ballot will be a $550,000 article to remedy a septic problem at the Clark School and a $310,000 article to repair plumbing at the middle school where lead soldering presents a risk of lead exposure in drinking water.

Nicola Fraley was introduced as the new principal of Clark-Wilkins School and Bethany Bernasconi, the new principal of Amherst Middle School.

The Feb. 6 Deliberative Session was the first in a two-part voting system. The second part, ballot voting, will take place on Tuesday, March 13 in the Souhegan High School auditorium between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.

If all articles pass, the tax rate will go up by $1.11 per thousand of assessed value..

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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