Guest columnist Josh Silver: Northampton school budget — Let’s start with kindness, accuracy and respect

Northampton City Hall

Northampton City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By JOSH SILVER

Published: 05-09-2024 9:16 AM

The debate over Northampton school funding is the latest example of the circular firing squad of the American political left. According to the loudest voices for maximum school funding, anyone who points out that the budget recently approved by the School Committee would cannibalize other city departments and/or consume most of the city’s reserve funds is attacked with disturbing vitriol.

Led by School Committee member Michael Stein, the attacks skew the facts and vilify well-intentioned public officials — with rhetoric eerily resembling the polarizing discourse at the national level led by Donald Trump. In this case the attacks are against city officials who have the difficult task of balancing competing priorities and requests to pass a budget that funds our schools and our city without bankrupting Northampton — now or in a few years.

Missing from Stein’s recent attacks is the fact that our schools received a large and temporary infusion of funds related to the pandemic between 2020 and 2024 and hired for 49 new positions, and most of that money is no longer available. Also missing is the fact that the budget recently approved by the School Committee, leaving behind a $4.8 million shortfall, would likely require massive cuts to other essential city departments.

Missing, too, is the fact that the next property tax override would have to be far larger than the $2.5 million override approved by voters in 2020, risking voter rejection and, subsequently, more budget cuts. We hear about “surpluses” that don’t actually exist or are completely untouchable, such as the water and sewer reserve funds that were raised through usage fees, not taxes.

City officials who are weighing these facts are not anti-student or anti-teacher; they are elected officials making tough decisions — the very definition of policymaking. They are, without exception, people who care about public education, and do not want to cut our schools’ budgets.

Instead of acknowledging these truths, and approaching the funding debate in the spirit of collaboration and compromise, Stein insists we cannibalize other parts of the city budget, never specifying what exactly he would cut that wouldn’t jeopardize basic services or crucial programs related to climate, homelessness and our struggling downtown.

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Anyone who proposes a compromise is accused of not caring about students. Take a step back and think about how ridiculous this is. Why would anyone in our city government go out of their way to cut school budgets if it wasn’t absolutely mathematically necessary? Because they think making parents, teachers and children outraged is great politics?

If our elected leaders in the mayor’s office and on City Council have to take such a difficult step, maybe we should hear them out and fully understand their reasoning before going into attack mode.

So here we are, with a mayor and City Council taking on the difficult task of reconciling the competing needs and wants across the city, and coming up with a reasonable compromise budget that is viable and sustainable — amid attacks crafted by operatives who are skewing the facts, knowing that most people don’t have time to fact-check every assertion, and learn the fiscal and legal complexities that shape this debate.

I believe that we can be better than this. I believe there is a compromise budget possible that will cause some unwanted cuts, but will keep our schools and our city running smoothly across all departments. Crafting that budget would be more effectively achieved by each side being respectful, kind and fact-based — traits we ironically strive to imbue our kids with at home and in our schools.

We’re the adults. It starts with us.

Josh Silver lives in Florence.