NASE President Andrea Egitto was one of many speakers during public comment on May 16 who pleaded for fully funded schools.
Photo credit: Northampton Open Media

NORTHAMPTON — Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra officially unveiled her full $137 million fiscal year 2025 budget, which includes a public schools increase that falls shy of what the School Committee voted for in April.

Sciarra’s FY25 budget calls for an 8.5% increase for Northampton Public Schools over FY24’s base budget, or a 5.01% increase over the FY24 school budget’s total appropriation when including the $1.2 million the city added to the FY24 school budget to help close a $2.3 million gap.

The proposed increase is more than her original recommendation of a 4% increase for public schools but still falls short of the 14% increase the School Committee voted for on April 11, which would avoid any cuts to the district.

“I cannot in good conscience cut other essential city services to the degree necessary to balance this budget at the School Committee’s proposed funding level,” Sciarra’s budget read. “As the NPS budget is more than five times the size of the next largest city budget, which is Fire/Rescue, to make up their deficit would decimate city services.”

The proposed increase includes a withdrawal of $1.24 million from the Fiscal Stability Stabilization Fund, which Sciarra recommended be rolled permanently into the base of the NPS annual budget going forward.

With this recommendation, Sciarra said a $3 million Proposition 2½ general budget override vote is required this November. If city voters pass this override, then property taxes would increase in FY26. If the override failed, then the city would need to make additional cuts next fiscal year.

The mayor’s full budget comes after months of contentious debate between community activists and city officials that started in December when Superintendent Portia Bonner presented a first look budget with an 8% increase and recommendations to cut 20 full-time positions in the district.

Since then, students, staff, community activists and members of the Northampton Association of School Employees have utilized public comments, protests and a recent community forum to argue that anything less than fully funding public schools is unacceptable.

“We’re here tonight so that we can work together as parents, as students, as community members, as union members, to stand with our educators and paraprofessionals and every Northampton public school staff to say that education is a priority and our students deserve better,” Nykole Roche, a parent of three Northampton Public School children and a researcher with the Massachusetts Nurses Association, said during the May 8 community forum.

On May 1, 20 layoffs and 20 involuntary transfers were doled out across the district by the superintendent’s office in anticipation of the upcoming budget vote. Sciarra said during the May 16 City Council meeting that her new proposed increase would most likely change the number of pink slips handed out, but she was unsure if Bonner would have that updated information in time for budget hearings on May 29 and 30.

Public comment

Around 100 people gathered outside City Hall prior to the May 16 council meeting to protest proposed cuts and demand that schools be fully funded.

A majority of the protesters trickled into the City Council chambers to speak during the allotted 90 minutes for public comment before the meeting officially begins. Many of them were students and staff who spoke about their own personal experiences within the schools and any cuts would affect the district’s well-being.

“Your job as elected City Council is to look after the well-being of the entire city and students of our district,” said Northampton High School student Sage Lamanna, when addressing the council. “One of the ways that you do that is by fully funding our schools.”

Daniel Graham, an eighth-grade teacher at JFK Middle School, told the council that he was recently awarded a Harold Grinspoon Foundation Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Award for being the best new teacher in Northampton. Exactly one week after receiving the award, he became one of 20 teachers who received a pink slip to be laid off.

“I feel as though my colleagues and I have made meaningful progress towards providing a stable and comprehensive school experience for our students,” Graham said. “The proposed budget cuts would not only undo much of the work that we are doing, but they would also have lasting effects on the quality of education here in Northampton.”

Dory Graham, a paraprofessional from Jackson Street School, fought back tears when emphasizing how interpersonal connections with students will be lost if cuts go through.

“Please spare our kids this, and please don’t make me quit my job,” Graham said. “I love it, but I really can’t do it if the school isn’t safe.”

Andrea Egitto, the president of NASE, questioned why the city did not save money in anticipation of budget cuts to schools.

“Why didn’t you save money in anticipation for those deficits? Just like you did for climate change,” Egitto said. “By not doing this, you send the message that the schools in our city are not your priority and that you would rather scold people than take action to make things better.”

In the past, Sciarra has attributed the district’s struggles to is facing to two “fiscal cliffs.” One is the end of the one-time, pandemic-related Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief, ESSER funds, which provided $7 million in relief to the district over the past few years. The second, meanwhile, is the district spending money from the School Choice account faster than it replenishes it.

Sciarra warned of these cliffs in the past, including in her FY23 budget message, where she said the overreliance of School Choice reserve funds and one-time ESSER money would create a budget gap that would exceed the city’s capacity to raise additional revenue to cover it.

In this year’s budget message, Sciarra once again noted the significant impact a lack of state funding plays in the school district’s budget issues.

“Northampton’s Chapter 70 funding aid from the state has grown very little over the last 20 years,” Sciarra’s budget read. “Meanwhile, required Net School Spending, which is the metric determined by DESE for the annual minimum including Chapter 70 that a district must spend on schools, has increased.”

Sciarra’s budget noted how NPS enrollment has declined by 7.5% since the 2019-20 school year while staffing has increased by a net of 47 positions since FY20.

She also mentioned that NASE and the School Committee negotiated significant salary increases in contracts ratified in 2019 and 2022.

“Laudable reasons were behind all of these choices,” Sciarra’s budget read. “Nevertheless, because of the excessive reliance on non-recurring revenues — on top of stagnant state aid despite rising costs — they have contributed to the $4,777,531 deficit in NPS.”

Special general law

During its May 16 meeting, the City Council also voted against opting into a Massachusetts General Law known as “the Acts of 1987,” which basically allows more local control over the school budget.

Recommended by Ward 3 City Councilor Quaverly Rothenberg and Ward 4 City Councilor Jeremy Dubs, opting in to the law would have allowed the City Council to raise the mayor’s proposed budget by a two-thirds vote if the School Committee’s recommended budget is higher.

The order received a neutral recommendation from the council’s legislative matters committee and a negative recommendation from the council’s finance committee.

Ward 7 City Councilor Rachel Maiore argued that the opt-in would be beneficial because it would give the council more tools in its toolbox for future budget processes. She called the current school budget situation “not tenable,” which is why it is important to have this opt-in at the council’s disposal.

“To accept this opt-in provision is to have all possible options before us,” said Maiore, who joined Dubs and Rothenberg in saying yes to the opt-in. “I cannot look parents and students in the eye and say I forgo something that could have been important, and for what reason? I don’t even know. Would I tell them we’re afraid of our own power?”

The other six councilors, however, did not feel it was time to opt into this measure.

At-Large City Councilor Marissa Elkins said she would vote no on the matter but noted she would work with the School Committee, mayor and rest of her colleagues to see how they could implement this in the future.

“I do not think this is the appropriate time to pass this, especially because it is most confusing for those who think that we would immediately then use this provision to deal with this year,” Elkins said.

At-Large City Councilor Garrick Perry also stated that he would be willing to work with the council on adopting this opt-in for the future but ultimately decided that now was not the appropriate time to do so.

“I do think it’s nice to have all the tools you can have. But I do know that a tool utilized improperly doesn’t help anyone,” Perry said.

Rothenberg noted that by not opting in, the power is solely left to the mayor to amend the budget to give more money to the schools. Right now, the council only has the power to decrease funding or maintain what the mayor has proposed.

“I think that opting in is the appropriate way for us to be able to participate democratically,” Rothenberg said.
The council ultimately decided to vote 6-3 against opting in.

The next step is for the council to host budget hearings with the council’s finance committee on May 29 and 30 at 6 p.m. in council chambers or over Zoom. The mayor’s budget includes an overall increase of 3.45%.

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