Mayor’s budget boosts schools 8.5%: Advocates protest coming job cuts as spending falls short of demands

Students, parents, teachers and staff were at City Hall in numbers as the mayor unveiled her budget.

Students, parents, teachers and staff were at City Hall in numbers as the mayor unveiled her budget. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 05-17-2024 5:29 PM

Modified: 05-18-2024 4:23 PM


NORTHAMPTON — Weeks of debate over the Northampton school budget neared a conclusion Thursday night after Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra unveiled a nearly $137 million fiscal 2025 budget to the City Council that calls for an 8.5% increase in the city’s school spending and avoids deep cuts that would have affected some 40 teaching and staff positions.

That increase is more than twice what Sciarra originally recommended for school spending for the city to have a balanced budget, but well short of the level-services budget approved by the Northampton School Committee that would have meant a 14% increase and avoided job cuts.

With an 8.5% increase, the school district still will need to make reductions in its workforce.

At Thursday’s meeting, which stretched over five hours and was preceded by a large protest outside City Hall over expected school cuts, Sciarra said that the additional $1.24 million to cover the larger school budget would come from the city’s general stabilization fund, something the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) union had cited as a potential means to stave off cuts.

Sciarra also announced that Smith College committed to giving the city $500,000, which the city would spend over a three-year period.

Additionally, Sciarra called for a $3 million Proposition 2½ general budget override vote to be held this November, to coincide with the U.S. presidential election, in order to ensure the maximum number of voters. If passed, property taxes would rise in fiscal 2026. Without an override, she said, the city would have to make more cuts next fiscal year.

The mayor had previously warned that dipping too deeply into the city’s stabilization fund to cover the school budget would cause the city to lose its AAA bond rating, resulting in higher borrowing costs.

“While I would love to be able to fund every department to its aspirational levels, the reality is that municipalities are greatly restricted in the revenue they have available to fund all services needed by a community,” Sciarra said. “Every district, department, or division could use more resources. It is a mathematical impossibility, and I have a sworn responsibility to support all the services of the city.”

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NASE President Andrea Egitto called the mayor’s budget increase “disappointing,” since it would still mean job cuts.

“They saw the level of turnout and support we had, and decided to ignore it,” Egitto said. She also said she would be working with the Massachusetts Teachers Association, of which NASE is a member, to try to advocate for more school aid at the state level, something for which the mayor also advocates.

District Superintendent Portia Bonner said she had yet to determine how cuts would be made to meet the mayor’s budget. In her preliminary budget review in December, Bonner outlined how an 8% increase would result in a reduction of 20 full-time equivalent positions — 15.5 full-time teaching jobs and 4.5 full-time paraprofessional positions.

“We’re working on it as we speak,” Bonner said Friday.

The mayor’s budget will be the subject of two public hearings before the City Council takes it up for a vote in June.

Large crowd gathers

Before the council meeting, a large gathering of union members, parents and teachers protested outside City Hall over proposed cuts, holding signs and receiving numerous beeps of support from cars driving by on Main Street.

Many of those protesting then filled council chambers and spoke out against staff reductions during the public comment period, which ran to its maximum allotted time of 90 minutes. Children chanted “save our schools,” from outside the building, drowning out council President Alex Jarrett as he started the meeting.

Daniel Graham, a civics teacher at JFK Middle School, told the council he recently received the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s Excellence in Teaching Award as one of the best teachers in western Massachusetts. A week later, he received a pink slip indicating that he was tentatively one of the teachers to be let go by the district.

“As a civics teacher, I know all too well the impact that a lack of education can have on our city,” he said, speaking before the mayor gave her presentation. He noted that the mayor’s proposed budget “won’t just lead to one bad year in our schools. They will be felt for years, and perhaps even generations.”

Egitto during the public comments period criticized the city administration for their approach to the school budget situation, brought on by a loss of pandemic relief funds combined with contractually obligated wage increases.

“When people in the city say they knew that this day was coming and they warned us that the school budget would have huge deficits, instead of pointing fingers, why didn’t you save money in anticipation for those deficits just like you did for climate change?” Egitto said, referring to the city’s Climate Change Mitigation Stabilization Fund, created last year.

“By not doing this, you send the message that the schools in our city are not your priority and that you would rather scold people than take action.”

In her budget message, Sciarra said she believes the school board’s request was the largest proposed percentage increase for a public school district in the state.

The mayor noted that enrollment in the Northampton school system has declined by 7.5% since the 2019-2020 school year. Meanwhile, the district has increased staffing by a net of 47 positions since fiscal 2020. Additionally, the School Committee and the union negotiated significant salary increases in contracts ratified in 2019 and 2022, she wrote.

“Laudable reasons were behind all of these choices. Nevertheless, because of the excessive reliance on non-recurring revenues — on top of stagnant state aid despite rising costs — they have contributed to the $4,777,531 deficit in NPS,” she said. “This heartbreaking math is the reality, even after a promised 4% increase for FY2025 and having already received the highest consecutive percentage increases in two decades over the prior two years.”

Also on the council agenda was an order to adopt a section of the Massachusetts General Law that would allow council members to increase the total amount appropriated for the school budget by the mayor. The order was proposed by Ward 3 Councilor Quaverly Rothenberg and Ward 4’s Jeremy Dubs, both of whom previously expressed support for the 14% level services budget.

“A bond rating to me is easier to fix that than some of the devastating effects of these cuts on our elementary, middle and high school students,” Rothenberg said. I do not find this budget satisfactory. I do think we need to intervene.”

However, the motion to vote on the order failed by a vote of 6-3, with only Ward 7’s Rachel Maiore joining Rothenberg and Dubs in voting for the change.

“I do think it’s nice to have all the tools you can have, but I do know that a tool utilized improperly doesn’t help anyone,” said at-large Councilor Garrick Perry. “I cannot support this at this time but that does not mean I will not support it [in the future].”

Sciarra’s total city budget is a 3.45% increase from the previous year. Two public hearings will be held on the budget before the City Council votes on it in June: The first will take place on May 29 at 6 p.m. in the council chambers, with the second being held the following day at the same time and place.

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