Guest columnist Portia S. Bonner: Common purpose can bridge divide

Northampton Superintendent Portia S. Bonner speaks at a public hearing on the school budget in Northampton City Council chambers.

Northampton Superintendent Portia S. Bonner speaks at a public hearing on the school budget in Northampton City Council chambers. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By PORTIA S. BONNER

Published: 06-18-2024 7:59 PM

 

I am writing to the public in response to the teacher union’s vote of no confidence. This action is widespread across the commonwealth over the past several years, and is a common device designed to divide the district and the community. Fewer than half the members voted. I believe providing my perspective on the issues raised will lend balance to the conversation.

Last July, I entered the Northampton Public School District knowing that I would inherit many difficulties and be faced with many challenges. I do not expect a large school system to agree with everything the “boss” does or suggests. However, no expression can capture the deep disappointment that I have about the lack of courtesy this action demonstrates.

My first notification of this was through a phone call from a reporter! There was no prior communication from the union. Evidently, my attendance at the routine monthly meetings with the NASE Executive Board did not provide the E-board with an opportunity to let me know of their plan. The result of the no-confidence vote was 348 in favor out of 364 voting. This was pitched as a 96% vote in support of the action, but this spin is misconstrued when one realizes there are 897 employees. Maybe they’ll get it right the next time.

Let’s fact check!

The union stated that the primary reason for this vote is my lack of advocacy for an adequate budget. The first view budget presented in December 2023 for fiscal year 2025 was an 8% increase over the previous year. This budget included reductions that we all knew would be necessary to fund negotiated raises of 8% for teachers and a 12-14% increase for paraprofessionals. Other groups also received salary increases. The 8% budget is sufficient to maintain current services and move forward into the next year.

In advocating for more funding, I spoke at the Ways and Means hearing for Northampton this past winter. However, it seems that if I am not demanding the budget package sought by the union, then I have not met their standard of advocacy. I also met with Sen. Jo Comerford to discuss Chapter 70 funding and state support to increase funding for Northampton. Is that not advocating?

I am also criticized for “top down” initiatives planned for next year. Perhaps that means the union opposes implementation of the Restorative Practices program, which has been in the District Improvement Plan for four years, and continuation of the new math and EL curriculum which were initiated this current year. Those three things were already approved and in place before my tenure.

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Carrying out the curriculum and policy decisions of the School Committee is part of my job. The one thing that I have requested of staff next year is to address the number of different assessment tools we are using so that we can get a clear picture of what and how well kids are learning. I think we all agree that standardizing the assessment tool for K-8 would address the fidelity of measuring student growth across different schools.

The introduction of iReady, a diagnostic tool that screens and monitors students’ academic progress, which is already in use at the middle school, is pushing down to the elementary level. Wouldn’t it be prudent to use the same tool so that parents and students have an understanding of how they are progressing and meeting grade level standards at each of the grades? This would also save from unnecessary expenses having multiple platforms. We are saving money to get a clearer sense of how our students are doing and to pay salaries.

Union leadership says I lack presence in our schools. I am not sure what this means as I regularly walk through the building and the classrooms observing teachers and students. I would gladly share my log with you of my school visits. I rather stick out and am surprised to have been missed.

On this score, many community members can also share that my presence extends to community events when informed and invited.

I am also criticized for making disparaging comments and allegedly demonstrating disdain for students. In the incident referred to, my response was not directed to the student as was alleged by the union, but even then an apology was extended to avoid any misunderstanding. I am so sorry that the character value of forgiveness has not been infused in some people, and that some do not seem to be able or want to differentiate different perspectives without demonizing others.

I do believe in the powerful tool of restoration, but parties must be willing to consider the other’s perspective. It is a difficult time to be a teacher or educator. My desire is to heal what is apparently broken between administration and the union. A chant that I have heard recently is “some cuts never heal,” but when you apply the powerful balm of restorative practice with a common goal to work together for the benefit of children, things can change.

Portia S. Bonner is the superintendent of Northampton Public Schools.