Guest Columnist Jonathan A. Wright: School spending hike a tough budget lift

STAFF PHOTO

STAFF PHOTO

By JONATHAN WRIGHT

Published: 05-13-2024 6:33 PM

 

We live in a hot time with many pressures on resources at every level. That said, the current budget circumstance in Northampton was completely visible to the naked eye last year and carried warnings for the fiscal 2025 budget.

This is due to a significant negotiated pay adjustment, and the tapering out of one-time federal support. Other city expenses such as infrastructure, climate resilience, and community care are heavily funded through restricted grants not included in the city budget. Over the past 40 years, our city has sought and won an outsize share of grants, which makes so many initiatives possible.

It is true that the work of our public schools has become more challenging, as learning differences are identified sooner and and students are helped to good effect. Further, staff and families are under new stresses and are charting new paths post-pandemic. At the same time, enrollments are down about 9% over the past decade, and the strange calculus of charter schools and school choice bedevil the planning process year after year.

The superintendent provided a detailed early budget in December as requested by the mayor. Plenty of warning has been available for many months.

There is no precedent, however, for the breathtaking proposed school spending  increase, rolled on top of substantial increases over the past five years. These proposals add between 13.9% and 17 % to the previous year’s school allocation, depending on how the math is done, in an environment where municipal revenues for ongoing appropriations are limited at an annual increase of 2.5% plus new taxable property.

This proposed increase was forwarded by the School Committee without the committee taking on its expected duties, nor is there any calculus that would sustain this level of increase in further years. There is no other pot from which to draw funds of this scale, and other city functions are critical to safety, wellness, and thriving on all fronts.

Adversarial behavior, factual error, and levels of personal animosity are unacceptable. I urge kindness and understanding.

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There are choices to be made and communications to be nurtured and respected. I urge the City Council and the mayor not to cannibalize other essential city functions. I urge residents not to demand or expect this as it is irresponsible. The schools are excellent and will remain so going forward with the historic levels of funding being provided and augmented each year.

Jonathan A. Wright lives in Northampton.