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Community members packed JFK Middle School on April 11 to witness the School Committee pass a level services budget.
Photo credit: Northampton Open Media

NORTHAMPTON — After passionate testimony from community members over the past few months, the Northampton School Committee elected to pass a school budget of $42.8 million for fiscal year 2025, which amounts to a 14% increase.

If the Northampton City Council passes a city budget with this increase to the schools, then no cuts to positions in the school district will be necessary.

“Tonight, we need to send a strong message that Northampton Public Schools needs to be one of the top priorities of our district’s budget and our city’s budget, and its funding needs to reflect that,” said Ward 4 School Committee member Michael Stein during the April 11 meeting at JFK Middle School, where a jam-packed room of community members were on hand. “A level services budget will send that signal.”

The 14% increase diverges from the 8% increase that was proposed during the first look budget back in December and the 4% increase that was recommended in the most recent budget proposal from a couple weeks ago.

Background

During a preliminary school budget presentation in mid-December, Superintendent Portia Bonner said that Northampton Public Schools were requesting close to $40.8 million for FY25, which would represent an increase of just under 8% from the current FY24 budget.

Bonner estimated a school budget deficit of $2.7 million in FY25 due to the district’s overreliance of School Choice funds beyond sustainable levels, the elimination of coronavirus pandemic-related federal funding — also known as ESSER funds — and union contract increases that are exceeding the district’s revenue growth, and an increase of staff from FY18 to the current fiscal year due to coronavirus pandemic-related stressors and a change in the model to serve students with special needs.

To close the $2.7 million gap, the first look FY25 school budget featured recommendations that included around 20 full-time positions cut.

“We are making a concerted effort to keep within the two-year plan to work to balance the school budget and return Northampton Public Schools to strong fiscal principals as promised to the city,” Bonner said in her presentation. “To meet this promise, we must consider reductions within the workforce and rebuild the School Choice reserves.”

Sciarra, however, said during a Jan. 30 joint meeting with the School Committee, City Council and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School that a school budget increase of 8% would create a budget deficit of $3.5 million in FY25 and would require a $5 million Proposition 2½ override in FY26 and another $5 million override in FY29.

Instead, based on anticipated revenues and expenditures, Sciarra recommended that the School Committee approve a 4% increase from their current budget.

“I very strongly recommend that the School Committee look to support the administration in bringing the budget back in line with the fiscal stability plan,” Sciarra said at the time.

A second budget proposal from Bonner was released days before the School Committee and reflected the 4% increase, or a slightly over $38 million budget, that Sciarra recommended back in January.

The 4% proposal included a total of 30 positions cut and a salary freeze for all staff amounting to $1.9 million. In all, an additional $2.7 million would be cut from the first view budget to get to the 4% increase.

Community outcry

Both the 8% increase proposal from December and the recent 4% increase proposal drew ire from students, staff and members of the Northampton Association of School Employees over the past few months due to the recommended cuts.

“Every person in our district is essential,” said NASE President Andrea Egitto during the first view budget meeting in the winter. “Our schools cannot possibly survive these cuts. I implore all of you to put forward a budget for what our schools need, not for what’s being handed down.”

Multiple protests ensued over the past several weeks including one a day before the School Committee vote where Northampton High School students conducted a sit-in at Northampton City Hall and spoke with Bonner and Sciarra about the budget situation following their protest.

Lucy Braudis, president of the senior class at NHS and organizer of the sit-in at City Hall, decried the 4% budget proposal during the School Committee meeting on April 11, where she was allowed to speak just before the School Committee conversed about the budget. During her remarks, she listed many of the positions that were proposed to be cut and noted the impact the cuts would have on students.

“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.”

Other members of the public utilized the full 90 minutes that is allotted for public comment to denounce the proposed 4% budget.

Karen Hildago, a school guidance counselor at NHS, bluntly asked for no cuts during her time to speak.

“We can’t afford cuts at Northampton High School,” Hildago said. “If we make the proposed cuts … we’ll have larger classes, fewer courses offered, fewer services. This will harm our students and it will depress enrollment.”

Ryan Road Elementary School teacher Amy Sidoti spoke to the negative impact cuts would have the younger students in the district.

“It has been proven over and over that early intervention and services in the early grades makes a difference,” Sidoti said. “If we do not, the tower of learning has gaps, holes and shaky pieces.”

School Committee

The School Committee heeded the words of the public and passed the level services budget which was initially proposed by Stein. The budget was passed 8-1 with one abstention.

“At the very least, I think we owe it to our community, who has overwhelmingly reached out to us asking for services to continue,” said Ward 3 member Emily Serafy-Cox.

School Committee member Gwen Agna, who also voted yes to level services, acknowledged how the district cannot continue with “business as usual.”

“I swore to support the children of Northampton, it’s part of our code of ethics,” Agna said. “I valued that as an educator and I value it now, and I think we’re going to have to ask the City Council to help us with this.”

Ward 2 member Karen Foster-Cannon was the lone person to vote no to the level services budget because she felt that the 14% increase would take away from other amenities in the city that impact the city’s children.

“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,” Foster-Cannon said. “I’m looking at the childhood experience of Northampton with a little bit bigger of a lens.”

Sciarra abstained from the vote and once again warned of the impacts a 14% increase would have on the city’s fiscal stability.

“I can’t in good conscious support something that I don’t know is sustainable,” Sciarra said. “It would be irresponsible, and I have responsibility to the students district in the city of Northampton and I cannot support [a] plan that I know will create a situation that undoes years of work to stabilize the school budget and to create security for the people who work for the schools and city and the needed services for the people and the students.”

The school budget will now be part of the larger city budget discussions that the City Council has in the near future. The City Council has to vote on the full city budget before FY25 begins on July 1.

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