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The City Council approved Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s amendments to the school budget during a July 2 special meeting. The amendments helped raise the school budget to $40.8 million, or an 8% increase from the current fiscal year.
Photo credit: Northampton Open Media

NORTHAMPTON — After several months of debate, the fiscal year 2025 budget season reached a conclusion on July 2 when the City Council approved additional appropriations to Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s FY25 school budget.

During the meeting, the nine councilors unanimously voted in favor of an additional sum of a little over $1.1 million for the Northampton Public Schools, bringing the official total FY25 budget for schools to $40.8 million, or an 8% increase from the current fiscal year.

The additional sum was achieved by adding $737,556 from the city’s Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund, $166,666 as a gift from Smith College and $200,528 from the city’s Special Education Stabilization Fund, which was just created at one of the prior meetings to cover special education costs in the school budget on a yearly basis.

Background

Sciarra initially proposed a budget of $39.6 million for the schools on May 16, or a 5% increase from the current fiscal year.

After perpetual calls for more funding to the schools, she then proposed the $40.8 million budget for schools on June 6.

The council, however, failed to pass the mayor’s full $137 million budget during its June 20 regular meeting after they were unable to receive the necessary six votes. Three councilors — Ward 4 Councilor Jeremy Dubs, Ward 3 Councilor Quaverly Rothenberg and Ward 7 Councilor Rachel Maiore — voted against the budget because the $40.8 million school budget still results in the loss of 20 positions in the district.

Because this happened, Sciarra’s initial proposal from May 16, which includes the $39.6 million for NPS, had to pass on July 1 when FY25 began.

Despite that, the council was still able to approve the necessary amendments during its July 2 special meeting to get the school budget up to $40.8 million.

For the last several weeks, students, staff, unions, community advocates and representatives from the Northampton Association of School Employees have demanded that the city add $2 million to the $40.8 million school budget to get to level services, which would avoid all cuts in the district.

Sciarra, however, has noted in her budget that the school deficit has swelled to $4.77 million because of the stagnant aid from states and an overreliance of one-time funds. In FY24, Sciarra used $1.2 million in one-time stabilization and ESSER funds to cover a $2.3 million deficit but she warned that continuing to do this will create a larger deficit each year.

“Using one-time funds, like stabilization funds, for recurring and compounding expenses will create a larger deficit the following year,” read Sciarra’s budget message. “We are living a devastating and divisive example of this right now and we must learn from it.”

July 2 meeting

During the special meeting, Rothenberg wondered if the mayor would be willing to add an additional $466,000 to the school budget to help stave off student-facing cuts. She suggested that $150,000 come from the Special Education Stabilization Fund and the rest from another stabilization fund.

Sciarra responded by saying that the School Committee already voted for the school budget with the amendments to get to the $40.8 million.

“School Committee has already voted bottom line contingent on [these amendments] being voted today,” Sciarra said. “So, that’s what we’re looking at.”

Despite passing the amendments unanimously, some councilors expressed a dissatisfaction with how the budget season went.

“I’ll be voting yes on this order to appropriate the supplemental appropriation,” Ward 4 City Councilor Jeremy Dubs said. “But I just wanted to kind of just for the record say that I felt like this entire budget process has felt very rushed … I hope we can do better next time for the next budget process.”

Rothenberg, meanwhile, lamented the fact that the school budget is still $2 million short from what advocates wanted and from what the School Committee voted for in April.

“Of course, we are going to approve this; of course, we want the schools to get every bit of money they can get along the way,” Rothenberg said. “But this is still a huge disappointment to Ward 3 … We cannot leave our constituents hanging like this. This was a deep disservice to our community.”

City Council President Alex Jarrett said in the past that he will vote for the budget, but he hopes that the council can find better ways to fund the schools.

“I very much wish there was a sustainable way to add even more funding for the Northampton Public Schools,” Jarrett said. “And I look forward to thinking together in the future about how we can accomplish that.”

Maiore said that although the budget season may be over, Sciarra can still move money around in the coming months to help cover specific needs.

“Although the budget conversations will come to an end soon, that the larger conversations can still happen,” Maiore said.

During the meeting, concerns were also raised by Rothenberg about the absence of a public comment period during the July 2 meeting as well as a tendency for some on the council to ask Jarrett to “control the way people shook their heads, moved their bodies, whispered to their neighbors” during a prior meeting on the budget.

“I’m very concerned about people’s right to participate in a public space and the kinds of messages we were sending through this budget season,” Rothenberg said.

Jarrett responded by saying that there was no public comment for the July 2 meeting because the subject of the school budget has already been brought up at multiple meetings, and “we’ve had quite a bit of public comment there.”

He said that people will still be able to speak at the July 11 regular meeting and can email councilors about any thoughts they have.

He finished by saying that he “looks forward to further conversations about our rules or about how we engage with the public and engage with each other.”

Readers can learn more about the school budget by reading Reminder Publishing’s prior coverage at thereminder.com/local-news/northampton-mayors-full-budget-fails-to-pass-city-council/.