Guest columnist Pamela Schwartz: Northampton must pull together to fix fiscal foundation

Northampton City Hall

Northampton City Hall STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By PAMELA SCHWARTZ

Published: 06-12-2024 5:43 PM

 

My two terms serving as Northampton’s Ward 4 city councilor that began 15 years ago left me with a lasting impression: Local governing is hard work and never harder when times are tough.

My life as a proud parent of now three grown children who went through the Northampton Public Schools showed me the depth of what our schools have to offer: an excellent education made possible by the extraordinary dedication of our teachers and administrators.

And my role as volunteer co-leader of two successful override campaigns in 2009 and 2013 that prevented drastic cuts to our schools and other city services made clear what our community does when the well-being of our city is at stake: We come together and take the action necessary to protect our kids and the basic needs of all our residents.

We are in a tough moment right now. And the moment is made all the tougher when the facts get blurred by misleading information and rhetoric. Here are the facts:

■We cannot fix our school budget gap with one-time revenues. That is how we got into this mess to begin with. If we keep doing that, our problem will only get worse and the deficit will only grow larger each year as expenses grow each year. Spending down our stabilization funds even more than already recommended by Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra not only delays the reckoning, it will significantly worsen it.

Even under Mayor Sciarra’s latest proposal to allay some of the worst cuts this year, we must pass a $3 million override to avoid an even greater crisis next year. She has also made it clear that schools will be limited to a 3% budget increase next year in order to ensure that the override funds last the promised four years.

Mayor Sciarra is providing the fullest disclosure possible on the reality of our current choices. We all have a responsibility to register them and to make current decisions with the fiscal consequences squarely before us.

Article continues after...

Yesterday's Most Read Articles

Elements Massage studio in Hadley abruptly closes after state order
Prominent immigration law firm in Northampton to close, affecting 30-plus employees
Charged UMass protesters marshal defense: Question crackdown, cite ‘bad-faith’ chancellor negotiations
Area property deed transfers, July 18
Smart-growth district plans along commercial corridor in Hadley forge ahead
Around the Hamptons: ‘Wild cows’ find way back to Easthampton home; local internet testing; Blueberry Supper in Westhampton

■The city’s expenditures on the Resilience Hub and Picture Main Street are not relevant to resolving our school funding crisis. Any claim that they are is a distortion of fact.

Hub funds derive from either one-time funding sources (e.g., American Rescue Plan Act) or funds that cannot be used for school operating costs (e.g., Community Development Block Grant). Neither would do anything to repair the schools’ structural budget deficit.

Picture Main Street is using $19 million in state and federal transportation grants that cannot be repurposed to fund schools.

The fact that our public discourse includes pitting people without homes against children deserving of a quality public education is evidence enough to know that we are in a conversation that has gone deeply awry.

The cause of our structural deficit is not a mystery. It has been explained in detail by Mayor Sciarra (go to the city’s website at https://northamptonma.gov/2356/Budgets to learn more). It will not be resolved without some cuts. Our leaders’ time and energy should be spent on how to make the cuts least the impactful on students and teachers alike.

■Our state government’s funding formula (Chapter 70) and charter school funding formula leave us continually on the short end of the stick, over and over again. We need to focus our time and energy on demanding state reform that would ensure Northampton gets its fair share of public education dollars.

Mayor Sciarra’s FY25 budget now proposes to increase the total appropriation for the Northampton Public Schools by 8%, the largest percent increase in 32 years. And it’s still not enough to avoid cuts. That only indicates how big our problem is, not that the problem doesn’t exist.

We need to join forces across all levels of city government and community to repair our fiscal foundation so that we can then build upon a foundation we can trust. We need to make space for parents’ legitimate concerns for their kids — and to advocate for the most equitable distribution of cuts possible — while our leaders channel the worry to meaningful and effective solutions.

Leadership. We need more of it. Every single city and school leader is called upon to do the job we hired them to do: Reckon with the facts on the ground and provide a path forward. Accusations leveled at Mayor Sciarra or any other leader working within the reality of this fiscal crisis that they do not care about students are a terrible waste of time, if not a dereliction of duty.

We must get to the task at hand that will truly take care of our kids, our seniors, our most vulnerable residents, all of us. We can do this. Let’s start now, together.

Pamela Schwartz is a former Northampton Ward 4 city councilor and longtime resident of Northampton.