Advocates press for more money for Northampton schools at lengthy budget hearing

Northampton Public Schools Superintendent Portia Bonner speaks during a public hearing on the school budget held in Northampton City Council chambers on Wednesday.

Northampton Public Schools Superintendent Portia Bonner speaks during a public hearing on the school budget held in Northampton City Council chambers on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 05-31-2024 5:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — One by one they came to the podium in City Council chambers — or they zoomed in online — with a straightforward message for councilors: Save the city’s school system from cuts in next year’s budget.

Among them was Janis Totty, a retired Northampton Public Schools teacher, who said the city should prioritize the schools over initiatives such as the planned Picture Main Street project.

“We can, right now, afford to do more to buy time so that we can all find a sustainable way forward,” Totty told councilors. “We cannot change inequities by using the same values that created them.”

The message isn’t a new one, but its urgency is growing as the council wraps up public hearings on Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s $137 million budget for fiscal 2025 and prepares to vote on it. As that day nears, advocates for more school funding continued to make their case at Wednesday’s six-hour hearing that included four hours of discussion over the school district’s proposed $3.96 million budget.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first of two public hearings on the overall city budget at which the council heard from each city department head. The second meeting took place Thursday night. Councilors will finish their deliberations on the budget next week before putting a final planned budget to a vote on Thursday.

The mayor could come back to the council with an amended budget by that time. Councilors can make further cuts to the mayor’s proposal, but not add any spending.

The mayor’s current budget proposal amounts to a 5% increase for the schools next fiscal year over the current year’s spending, up from her original proposed increase of 4%. At that 5% figure, however, the schools would still have to eliminate about 27 total positions, with five of those positions coming from retirements rather than job cuts.

Advocates for a level-services budget that would avoid all job cuts, approved by the city’s School Committee, would increase the school budget by 14%, or almost three times what the mayor is asking.

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Those advocates, including members of the Northampton Association of School Employees, dominated the public hearing on Wednesday.

Kate Fontaine, a social studies teacher at Northampton High School, spoke out against the numerous positions that would be transferred to other schools within the district as a result of the cuts.

“Teachers are moved into jobs based on their licensure, not based on what they’re really good at,” Fontaine said. “We don’t have any money. Where’s the professional development going to come if you’re changing schools and changing grades? And I have members that are going from elementary school to preschool. We have people that are going from elementary school to the high school. It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of doing the right thing for students.”

Valerie Reiss, the parent of a fourth grader at Leeds Elementary, said enacting the cuts would lead to dire outcomes.

“It is not hyperbole to say that we are on the brink of catastrophe with these cuts,” said Reiss. “Can we just please stop blaming and deflecting and just listen, because your School Committee and educators and parents and students do actually know what they’re talking about.”

Positions in jeopardy

During a presentation at the hearing, Superintendent Portia Bonner provided a closer look at exactly which positions would be cut under the budget proposed by Sciarra.

For the city’s four elementary schools, Bridge Street Elementary would lose one first grade paraeducator, one tiered support specialist and one academic support staff member. Leeds Elementary would lose one special education teacher, one math interventionist, one classroom teacher, one peer support staff, two academic support staff, and one first grade paraprofessional. Ryan Road would lose a first grade paraprofessional and two academic support staff. Jackson Street will lose three full-time teaching positions, two non-special education paraeducators, two academic support teachers and one paraprofessional.

At JFK, one foreign language teacher would be cut, along with two part-time positions and a math interventionist. At Northampton High School, two teachers, one in English and one in math, would lose their positions, and a retiring adjustment councilor position will not be filled.

Bonner noted, however, that the positions listed as being cut or reduced could still be subject to change. “This is a living document,” she said.

Mareatha Wallace, a paraeducator at JFK, said the cuts would have a disproportionate effect on students of color in the district, who often require additional educational resources in the district.

“You are hurting those students,” Wallace said. “I’m telling you as a Black woman who has raised four brown students, one with severe autism, that what you’re doing is not equitable.”

Emotions high

As at previous official meetings on the school budget this year, emotions continued to run high. School Committee member Michael Stein of Ward 4, who supports a level-services budget, spoke during the public comment period and asked to be recognized as a member of the School Committee to address certain questions made by other members of the public.

Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore, who chaired the hearing as head of the council’s Finance Committee, granted Stein’s request on the condition he represent only himself as a member and not the School Committee as a whole. That led to an objection by Councilor at-large Marissa Elkins, who insisted that a vote had to be taken by the council to have Stein recognized.

That objection was promptly rejected by Maiore, who said she had spoken with city solicitor Alan Seewald earlier in the day, who confirmed she had the authority to do recognize Stein as a committee members. “I would like him [Stein] to finish. I’m not allowing that,” Maiore said.

That led to a testy exchange of words among Maiore and Elkins, along with councilors Quaverly Rothenberg and Jeremy Dubs, both of whom have expressed support for the level-services budget.

“I believe Councilor Maiore already spoke,” Dubs said after Elkins continued to protest Maiore’s decision.

“I believe Councilor Dubs is not on Finance Committee,” Elkins responded back.

Later in the evening, Elkins criticized some of the rhetoric used amid public discussion over the school budget.

“I’ve heard there were people who said they wanted to come here tonight and bring popcorn for this moment, for the show that it is,” she said, standing up from her seat. “We have to grow this budget, but we have to do it responsibly.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.