Guest columnist Cathy McNally: Northampton School Committee standing up for children

Northampton High School.

Northampton High School. STAFF FILE PHOTO

By CATHY MCNALLY

Published: 05-07-2024 1:51 PM

 

I’ve often appreciated the measured perspective, wry humor, and rich language of Bill Dwight. In his recent column, “How to make sense of Northampton’s school budget dilemma,” however, this cool “city father” turns into a cranky municipal dad whose misbehaving kids (aka the School Committee) have gotten on his last nerve by refusing to approve what they felt was an unacceptable school budget.

Dwight’s 800-word scolding has notes of such well known Dad themes as “In the old days, the School Committee did what they were told,” and “You people need a dose of reality!” and “Lots of people went to underfunded schools, and they turned out FINE!”

But it’s not just the School Committee that’s getting read the riot act. There’s also implied blame for anyone who protested the cuts and urged the School Committee to reject them. In fact, the message from Dwight and many of his fellow supporters of the mayor’s budget seems to be: “‘You get what you get, and you don’t get upset!”

We can see that “wayward children” label in every sentence Dwight writes about the School Committee. After describing the years 2013-20 in which former mayor David Narkewicz, with the help of overrides and new taxes, established the Fiscal Stability Plan and kept fiscal misery at bay, Dwight introduces the School Committee in a sentence so dramatic, you can almost hear Morgan Freeman doing the grave voiceover: “Then the School Committee strayed from the plan, and budget misery came back.”

“Straying from the plan” makes these elected officials sound like a band of shepherd boys and girls who were enchanted by magical dancing cherubs (that’s you, high school students!) and wandered dreamily off the path, leaving the sheep unattended. But, of course, the members of the School Committee aren’t children or Little Bo Peeps, and they didn’t “stray.” They are thoughtful, responsive, and committed adults fulfilling their first duty in the Massachusetts School Committee Code of Ethics, which is “to realize that his/her primary responsibility is to the children.”

Far from straying, they stood up firmly for the children of Northampton when they rejected a budget they knew would hurt those children.

And though Dwight’s column seems intent on establishing blame, what if blame isn’t relevant here? Shouldn’t we spend our time trying to solve the school budget problem? What we must do now — and what the city council needs to do with us — is to look clearly at the trade-offs in this budget. What is the money cut from the school budget paying for? If the schools were given an adequate budget, what would be cut from somewhere else?

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This is the unanswered question asked by committee member Michael Stein at one or more School Committee meetings. We need the answers now.

Dwight claims that “Municipal budgets include many essential services of equal importance.” I don’t agree. Maybe every item in the budget is important, and surely some items are extremely important. But here the City Council needs to be the ER triage nurse who helps the community find out what’s both urgent and essential.

I believe that children’s educational needs are probably both, but perhaps there is some non-school budget item so critical that it’s worth compromising children’s education. Dwight says that “Framing the discussion as a matter of ranking services needlessly pits constituencies against each other.” But “ranking services” describes the act of identifying what our community values most, and discussing, debating, and deciding those values is what makes us a community. It’s not “fomenting division,” as Dwight calls it; it’s fortifying democracy.

And finally, Dwight casually dismisses concerns about the anticipated impact of school budget cuts with a single dystopian-grade assurance that “budget cuts can be implemented without causing illiteracy.” He ignores the dozens of students, teachers, or parents who shared publicly the impact of the cuts on their lives. In fairness, it would be hard to make his argument after viewing those two fourth grade girls on Zoom explain exactly what happens in a classroom with 28 children in it, or hearing high schoolers talk about how the drama program “saved their lives.”

It’s good to know history; it’s good to know the numbers; but it is essential to listen to the people affected by them. A review of all of that is what can help us get on track.

Cathy McNally lives in Northampton.