Looming staffing cuts vex Northampton school board, students

Northampton High School students  protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night.

Northampton High School students protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Northampton High School students  protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night.

Northampton High School students protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Northampton High School students  protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night.

Northampton High School students protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Northampton High School students  protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night.

Northampton High School students protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Northampton High School students  protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night.

Northampton High School students protest proposed budget cuts in front of the school on Monday afternoon. The School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner later spent considerable time discussing the school budget at a meeting later that night. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-02-2024 4:46 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Just hours after Northampton High School students staged a walkout Monday to protest the dismal outlook for next year’s school budget, the School Committee and Superintendent Portia Bonner grappled with the prospect of losing at least 20 full-time positions — and possibly many more — during one final budget discussion before a final draft is voted on and submitted to the city next week.

At Monday’s meeting, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra addressed some common concerns held by the community over the school budget, emphasizing that the city does not have any extra funds to supply the school like it did last year, when it tapped into emergency funds to stave off budget cuts.

“I really cannot be more clear about this: There is no more revenue, and spending more than there is recurring revenue for is precisely what got us into this current situation,” Sciarra said.

That situation is not pretty. The schools are facing a shortfall of more than $2.75 million in fiscal 2025, which begins July 1, with staffing cuts signaled as necessary to close the gap.

Bonner has blamed the budget gap on an overuse of school choice funds, an increase in staffing in the district, and union contracts over the past three years exceeding the school’s revenue growth. Declining overall enrollment, an increase in special needs students and the cessation of federal COVID-19 relief funds have also factored into the widening shortfall, she said.

Sciarra has said any increase in the budget must be kept at 4% for next year. However, the first version of the school budget, revealed by Bonner last December, carried a spending increase of 8%, even while eliminating more than 20 full-time positions. The superintendent has not yet presented detailed plans of what the cuts would look like if the budget were capped at a 4% increase next year.

Several School Committee members said the idea of keeping the budget increase to 4% is untenable. Their opposition reflects concerns shared by many school staff and city residents, who have urged the mitigation of the proposed cuts at previous School Committee meetings.

“I don’t think I can approve a 4% budget (increase),” said Ward 1 committee member Holly Ghazey. “I think we have to look at this in terms of short-term, medium-term, long-term solutions.”

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Ghazey suggested that the city reach out to Smith College for a contribution to support this year’s budget.

“We do need to approach them for more contribution into our community, which is their community,” Ghazey said of Smith. “Their school and our students, we’re interconnected. So I do think that an outreach needs to be made.”

Sciarra told the committee that city and Smith officials plan to meet next week to discuss the school budget.

Ward 6 committee member Margaret Miller also expressed deep concern over the prospect of increased classroom sizes for the school district, saying she would rather eliminate her own paid stipend as a committee member than reduce student-facing positions at the school.

“I cannot live with the class sizes the way they’re proposed,” Miller said. “I am very concerned that we will drive more families away from this district because they will not tolerate the class sizes.”

High school rally

Earlier in the day, students at Northampton High used the walkout to urge the city to prevent job cuts to the district.

“We’re not investing in our students’ education,” said Lucy Braudis, a senior at NHS. “It’s not something we should be proud of.”

Braudis also criticized the high turnover of school administration, noting that there have been three principals and three superintendents during her time at the high school, with current Principal Bill Wehrli also set to leave at the end of the semester.

“We have not had that stable administrative team to help our learning. It has impacted our learning environment pretty dramatically, and it has negatively impacted students here at NHS,” Braudis said.

August Santos, a junior, also noted that the proposed cuts could mean a shuffling of teachers and guidance counselors across district schools.

School Committee Vice Chair Gwen Agna praised the efforts by students, saying they had a approached the issue in a “mature and wise” way.

“There was not the vitriol and not the blaming and the shaming. They were really just laying it out and saying, here we are and here’s our situation,” Agna said. “I wish they were part of our work in this because they really were approaching it in a way that I think we need to.”

Mayor defends increase

At Monday’s meeting, Sciarra defended the 4% spending increase goal for the school budget, saying it was in keeping with several neighboring school districts. She also noted that last year, the School Committee voted for a budget with more than a 4% increase, resulting in an increasing deficit for this year.

“This is the reality that we have to deal with. None of these facts change that needs in schools are higher than they’ve ever been and that we have to figure out the best way to serve the students,” Sciarra said, “under the constraints we have and the deficit we have created. We have to be able to have hard conversations, conversations that are happening in many, many other communities right now.”

The final version of the school budget will be voted on and submitted to the city by Bonner on April 11, and must be submitted to the mayor’s office on April 16 to be included as part of the city’s overall fiscal year budget. The City Council will then vote to approve that budget for the next fiscal year.

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