Northampton School Committee takes stand for budget increase during emotional meeting

Students, teachers and parents crowd JFK Middle School’s community room on Thursday night to support a $42 million level services school budget.

Students, teachers and parents crowd JFK Middle School’s community room on Thursday night to support a $42 million level services school budget. STAFF PHOTOALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-12-2024 5:12 PM

Modified: 04-12-2024 6:09 PM


NORTHAMPTON — An emotionally intense meeting Thursday over the school budget for the city schools ended with the School Committee bucking the recommendations of the mayor and superintendent and approving at least a 14% increase in spending next year.

A budget at that level, should it make its way to approval by the City Council later this spring, would avoid job cuts — a far cry from the nearly 30 positions on the chopping block under a budget proposal that calls for a 4% increase in spending in fiscal 2025.

Parents, students and members of the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) union packed JFK Middle School’s community room, with people overflowing into the hallways, to support a level-services budget of about $42 million. Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, however, had said that a 4% increase to $38 million was necessary to balance the city budget next year. 

Those speaking during the public comment session of the meeting, which took up the entirety of the allotted 90 minutes, urged the committee not to vote for a budget that included cuts.

“No to an 8% cut. No to a 4% cut. No to cuts,” said Ian Goodman, a Northampton resident and parent of a student at Jackson Street Elementary School. “Give our students what they need to be successful. Balance the city budget off the backs of adults, not children.”

Many students in the district, ranging from seniors to fourth graders, also spoke out against the cuts. They gathered outside of JFK Middle School before Thursday’s meeting, a day after about 100 Northampton High School students walked out of class and marched to the mayor’s office for a sit-in protest against proposed cuts to the high school’s theater program.

“I’ve been in all the musicals and the plays of high school. Each has been an amazing and invaluable experience both to do what I love and to make friends along the way,” sophomore Kai Imperial-Jewett told the committee. “My spark has grown into a passion that I carry with me every day. But if we lose [theater teacher] Dave [Grout] and the theater program, so many students, present and future, will lose their own spark and their dream to perform.”

Karen Hidalgo, a school counselor at NHS and a member of the teachers union, said student needs have been increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic and that the city needs to look into other ways to keep schools funded.

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“We can talk about regionalizing, we can talk about consolidating schools. I know we’re asking Smith [College] for money. There’s things we can do,” Hidalgo said. “If we make the proposed cuts at NHS, we’ll have larger classes, fewer courses offered, fewer services. This will harm our students and it will depress enrollment.”

Emotions run high

The high emotions running through the meeting came to a head when Lucy Braudis, an NHS student and president of the senior class, was allowed to speak during the committee’s discussion of the school budget. Braudis had been one of the students who had organized the sit-in on Wednesday and had spoken with the mayor and Superintendent Portia Bonner following the protest.

Braudis listed several of the staff positions that were planned to be cut or reduced as part of the proposed budget cuts, and spoke strongly against the 4% increase proposal.

“It is not a luxury to have an education, it is not a luxury to fund our schools,” Braudis said. “It is a necessity that we have as a city in a service to our community.”

In response, Bonner told Braudis she needed to be corrected on several points regarding the budget cuts and had Bobbie Jones, the school’s business director, list all of the reductions in her proposed budget. Braudis then left the room, visibly upset. A person attending the meeting interrupted to say Bonner had spoken to Braudis in a disrespectful and rude way.

When Braudis eventually returned to the room, Bonner issued an apology to her.

“It was not my intent to respond that way,” Bonner said. “It was just said that I crushed this child, and I don’t do that.” Braudis then became upset and left the room again.

Committee swayed

The arguments were enough to sway the committee to approve the level services budget calling for a 14% increase.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from our community that they value education, that they want our city’s budget to reflect that fact,” Ward 4 member Michael Stein said. “As a school committee, we’re responsible for advocating for the needs of our students. And tonight we need to send a strong message that Northampton Public Schools needs to be one of the top priorities of our city’s budget.”

The final vote was eight committee members voting in favor of the 14% budget, with Ward 2’s Karen Foster being the lone dissenting voice. Sciarra, who chairs the school committee, abstained from voting.

In a statement on Friday, Sciarra said there was not enough money in the city’s Fiscal Stabilization Fund to cover the deficit to other city departments should the school budget be approved at a 14% increase. Sciarra used money from the stabilization fund to prevent budget cuts in last year’s school budget, and noted that if that money was excluded, the budget increase approved by the committee on Thursday is closer to 17%. 

“Unlike past years, the school committee has indicated that they want to send to the mayor a budget with spending levels that are aspirational,” Sciarra said. “This will leave an approximately $5 million deficit for which there is not enough in the Fiscal Stabilization Fund to cover that deficit for FY2025.” 

Ward 6 committee member Margaret Miller said she understood the fiscal complications for the city that would arise from passing such an increase, but said the city needs to commit to supporting public education.

“I am fully aware of the financial constraints that the city is dealing with,” she said. “However, I have to say that I joined the school committee because I have a deep, historic value for public education. And I really need our community to fund public education for our students.”

Foster, a former city councilor before joining the school committee this year, explained her vote against the budget by saying although the increase may help children in their capacity as students, it may harm them through cuts in other city services that are made in order to accommodate the budget, citing city crosswalks as an example.

“There’s a child that I’m particularly thinking of who is unable, due to a disability, to leave his house and cross the street where he lives. And that’s infrastructure money,” she said. “As a middle schooler, you can walk into Florence on sidewalks that are in good condition, and hang out with your friends after school. All of these things are part of the life experience of children in our community.”

Now that the budget has been passed, the mayor said Friday she will include it in the fiscal 2025 budget she will submit to the City Council. At that point, the council has the ability reduce budgets, meaning the final result still has potential to result in job eliminations.

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