On June 20, the Northampton City Council voted down the fiscal year 2025 budget after three councilors voted against it because it did not include a requested 14% budget increase for the schools, as approved by the School Committee at a meeting in April. The 14% budget increase would have ensured a level-service budget and no cuts to positions.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra had initially proposed a $39.6 million budget for the schools on May 16, before amending that to a $40.8 million budget, an 8% increase over FY24. Along the way, teachers, parents, students and local labor organizations have protested the lower proposed budget amounts and have requested a level service budget. This comes alongside a vote of no confidence in Northampton Public Schools Superintendent Portia Bonner.

By not approving the 8% amendment, the school budget will increase by the initial 5% proposed in May. The City Council and Sciarra had the opportunity to meet prior to the July 1 start date for FY25, but at the June 20 meeting, Sciarra said that she would not be increasing the school budget past $40.8 million, and several councilors said they would not be interested in conducting a meeting prior to July 1.

Sciarra did say that she would propose amendments after July 1 to get the schools up to the 8% budget increase.

This whole situation has been hard for me to wrap my head around as the budget discussions have unfolded over the past couple months. I am a huge proponent of getting schools the funding that they need, but there are certain restrictions and budgetary issues that, quite frankly, cannot be overcome with more funding, because that funding must come from somewhere.

Sciarra said that the reason for a $4.77 million deficit in the school budget comes from two fiscal cliffs — the end of ESSER funds as a result of the coronavirus pandemic as well as stagnating state aid. The amendment included a $1.98 million appropriation from stabilization funds, which is the most the city would be able to provide. Finance Director Charlene Nardi said that any additional funds from stabilization are tied to other projects in the city.

My question now is what happens in the week between June 24 — when I am writing this opinion piece — and July 1, when the budget goes into effect? Once July 1 comes and goes, the district is going to be short an additional $1.2 million than what was proposed, so what happens to the jobs that would’ve been saved because of the proposed 8% increase? Are additional people going to be laid off and then have to be rehired?

In a story reported by Staff Writer Ryan Feyre on June 27, he wrote that one of the councilors who voted against the budget, Ward 4 Councilor Jeremy Dubs, said, “I am voting to not cut funding or services from schools. It’s simple as that.”

From the outside looking in, it looks like the vote on June 20 did just opposite. Further pushback against the 8% is going to result in additional cuts to positions, when it is clear that the mayor’s office is not going to be allocating additional funding. According to the budget figures, the 8% increase will result in the cutting of around 20 positions, while the 5% increase puts that at around 30 positions.

From my understanding of the meeting, a backup plan was not presented in the case of the amended budget failing, so what was the point?

I understand wanting to stick to your values, but the voting down of this budget without a meaningful backup plan is both foolish and fiscally irresponsible.

Again, education needs to be better funded, whether that comes from the state or even the federal government, giant cuts to school budgets are unacceptable and it is horrible to see layoffs in a space that desperately needs good teachers and staff. This unfortunately is the reality of the world we live in; times are tough, and budgets are going to be tighter.

Looking at a requested 14% budget increase, this is gigantic compared to many of the schools in our area. In many cases, towns with smaller budgets will get about a 3-4% increase in their budget each year. South Hadley for example will see a budget increase of roughly 3.8%, while on the high end, Chicopee saw an increase of 6.2% from FY23 to FY24, and a similar increase for FY25. This is obviously not apples to apples, as districts have different needs and receive different amounts of funding, but an 8% increase, let alone a 14% increase, is very high compared to other communities.

We have to look for compromise in these kinds of situations, I understand it is difficult to accept not receiving the funding the district needs and deserves, especially when people’s livelihoods are involved, but at a certain point it’s worth asking if the no compromise approach is worth costing even more jobs. I wish we could get the level service budget and Northampton could retain the staff they will be losing, but it’s unfortunately an impossible task given both budgetary constraints and the two fiscal cliffs Sciarra mentioned. I sincerely hope all the staff that end up being laid off as a result of the cuts are able to find their feet quickly. I also hope the council quickly approves the amendments to get back to that 8% increase after July 1, if not this vote could have long-lasting detrimental effects to schools in Northampton.

The Northampton City Council was scheduled to vote on the 8% increase at a July 2 special meeting, after press time. Prior to that meeting, the School Committee agreed to move forward with a $40.8 million FY25 budget at a June 26 meeting.