Northampton superintendent outlines school layoffs on eve of budget hearings this week

Northampton Superintendent Portia Bonner said late last week that the proposed fiscal 2025 school budget would mean the loss of 17 full-time teaching positions.

Northampton Superintendent Portia Bonner said late last week that the proposed fiscal 2025 school budget would mean the loss of 17 full-time teaching positions. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 05-27-2024 4:01 PM

Modified: 05-27-2024 4:58 PM


NORTHAMPTON — The city’s schools are poised to layoff 17 full-time teachers next school year, the most significant of expected cuts should the City Council approve Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget next month.

On the eve of the council’s public budget hearings Wednesday and Thursday, Superintendent of Schools Portia Bonner confirmed in a Friday letter to the council and mayor that those positions would be lost, as well as one part-time clerical position.

Additionally, four other unspecified positions would not be filled after retirements this year, a full-time teacher at Northampton High School would be reduced to part time, and four paraeducator positions would be eliminated, Bonner said. There would be no layoffs for paraeducators, however, as employees in those four positions would be reassigned to vacant positions.

Bonner said in a phone call that the additional funds provided by Smith College would allow the return of some tiered support specialists within the district, and that class sizes would remain under 30 students across the district. The private college recently agreed to give the city $500,000 over the next two years, which the city will use over the next three years to support education.

“Although there will be a reduction in staff, each school building will maintain adjustment counselors and school psychologists,” Bonner wrote in the letter, responding to questions from the community about how the district will address the long-term effects of COVID, mental health and learning loss. “Guidance counselors remain at JFK and NHS.”

She added that elementary schools will share a literacy and math coach to work directly with staff, and districtwide attendance officers and social workers will continue to address chronic absenteeism, among other duties.

At the council’s May 16 meeting, Sciarra presented a nearly $137 million budget for fiscal 2025, which begins July 1. That amounts to a 3.45% increase over the current year’s budget.

The budget for the city schools has generated the most controversy this spring, as the School Committee and the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) pushed for a level-services budget that would have meant a 14% increase in school spending next fiscal year. Sciarra argued that a 4% increase was more affordable. In the end, the mayor recommended a budget of $3.96 million, or 5% more than the current year’s budget of $3.65 million.

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As mayor, Sciarra has pledged to increase the school budget by at least 4% every fiscal year. A year ago, the city made a one-time payment of $1.2 million from its stabilization funds to stave off school cuts in the current year in a move that boosted the budget increase to over 7%. This year, $1.24 million in stabilization funds are included to meet the budget increase, only this time the expense is being considered a recurring, rather than a one-time payment. Sciarra is also calling for a $3 million Proposition 2½ budget override, with a vote to coincide with this year’s U.S. presidential election.

Members of NASE met with Bonner last Thursday to discuss the looming cuts. NASE President Andrea Egitto said that the union would continue to advocate for the city to provide more dollars to the district via its stabilization funds.

“I’m grateful to the mayor for adding more than she originally suggested, for creating the stabilization fund for the money from Smith, but it’s still a long way to go to keep our schools intact,” Egitto said. “If we start cuts like this, it’s hard to make that up again in the future.”

Last Wednesday, nine educators at Bridge Street Elementary School sent individual letters to the mayor, Bonner, members of the School Committee, the City Council, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council and local parent-teacher organizations, warning of the effect job cuts would have on special needs students at the elementary school.

Two special education teachers at Bridge Street, Brian Duren and Rebekah Jaffe, said they were two of the more than 40 staff members who would be affected by the cuts, with Duren in line to lose his job and Jaffe being transferred to JFK Middle School.

“When I arrived here, I was welcomed with open arms and felt that this was a school district that valued its teachers,” Jaffe wrote in her letter. “However, I feel shocked and dismayed that a district that would be so welcoming, inclusive, and supportive would also underfund their district leading to feelings of being undervalued and under-appreciated.”

In his letter, Duren said he was a member of the school’s Crisis, Prevention & Intervention team, and was often called to handle students in crisis situations if tiered support specialists were unavailable. With both his and the tiered support specialists having their jobs removed, he said there would be no one to respond to students in distress.

“Bridge Street has felt like a work family for the last year. I love my job — the students, the staff, and the family connections,” Duren said. “I really hope you reconsider the plan for [staffing cuts] within our school community.”

In her budget message for this year, though acknowledging that the city had large amounts of undesignated free cash, Sciarra maintained that the kind of budget the NASE was asking for was not realistic.

“Every district, department, or division could use more resources,” Sciarra stated. “It is a mathematical impossibility, and I have a sworn responsibility to support all the services of the city.”

In her letter to the council and mayor, Bonner addressed some questions that arose from the Sciarra’s budget presentation two weeks ago. She said that despite declining enrollment of 7.5% over the last five years, the district increased its staffing by 47 positions due to “addressing the increased needs of students (a residual of COVID stressors).”

In answering why families are choosing alternative schooling for their children, the superintendent said that families select schools for various reasons, from programs to cultural diversity, core values and curriculum. In terms of specific numbers, she said 317 students attend private or parochial schools, 200 are out-of-district placements, 173 are at charter schools and 47 are home schooled.

Finally, Bonner noted that the contract between NASA and the district calls for staff reduction in force notices to go out 60 days before they take effect, which is why affected staff were notified on May 2 this year before the budget process plays out. She said the union declined a request to push the date to June 15.

The superintendent says that it will be “imperative for the district to stay within the 4% over the next two years.”

“Part of the plan will be to design actions, yielding cost savings measures to meet these targets and increase efficiency while maintaining a rich and robust educational experience for students attending Northampton Schools,” she wrote.

The first public hearing regarding the budget will take place Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the council chambers, when the council will take comment on budgets for the schools and for the Health and Human Services Department. Hearings continue on Thursday at 6 p.m. in the council chambers, when hearings will be held on budgets for fire, police, Department of Public Works, Central Services and Climate Action and Project Administration.

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