Northampton schools seek ‘big picture’ plan behind work of new 20-person team

PORTIA BONNER

PORTIA BONNER

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 02-14-2024 5:41 PM

Modified: 02-15-2024 2:00 PM


NORTHAMPTON — Ahead of what is shaping up to be a contentious budget year, school leaders are taking a step back to develop a longer-term vision for the city’s schools.

Superintendent Portia Bonner has formed a new strategic planning team to craft a five-year plan for the district, as well as solicit community input on what they think their city’s schools should look like.

Bonner said that the team will spell out a “big picture” plan for the district through the year 2029.

“We want to articulate a clear, cohesive set of actions to attain the vision and goals of the schools over the next five years,” Bonner wrote in a statement announcing the formation of the strategic team. “Setting the context for the work, we are looking at the change process needed to move the district/school community to where we desire it to go.”

The 20-person team consists of Bonner and several other administrators in the district, such as Northampton High School Principal Bill Wehrli and JFK Middle School Principal Lauren Marien.

It also includes several city officials, including Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra and Carolyn Misch, the director of planning and sustainability. Other members include Lynn Dole, a coordinator of teacher education at Smith College, Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vince Jackson and parents of children in the district.

Leaders with the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) union, however, are critical of the makeup of the team, saying there aren’t enough teachers and other school personnel chosen to participate.

Heather Brown, the vice president of NASE, noted that among the 20 members of the strategic planning team, only one teacher, Susan Sullivan, was included.

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“I would express disappointment that it’s not as inclusive as we would like,” Brown said. “Having one educator seems minimal at best.”

In an interview, Bonner said she put the team together based on people she had discussions with when she was hired last April.

“It was who would have the most influence to be able to go back to the people in their sphere of influence, to be able to say, let’s do this survey, let’s have conversations around what do we want to see our schools (look like) in the next five years,” Bonner said of the strategic planning team.

“They’re the ones who are literally going to comb through the surveys that we’ve put out in the district and to really start to assess the common maladies within those surveys, those common themes that come out,” she added.

The superintendent is encouraging all community members to answer a three-question survey, accessible through March 1 on the school district’s website or via hard copies available at Forbes Library, that will help the strategic team create its plan. Those questions include: “What does the district/school community look like, sound like, feel like today in 2029? What did the district/school community look like in 2023-2024? How did the district/school community become what it is today?”

Bonner is hoping all community members to fill out the survey, not just those who have children in the district.

“We really do want to hear from our constituents’ voices,” she said. “It’s really important that we are going to be in this together as we progress in our schools.”

Budget shortfall

The announcement comes as the public schools face a potential budget shortfall of more than $2.75 million next fiscal year. At a December School Committee meeting, Bonner blamed the budget gap on an overuse of school choice funds, an increase in staffing in the district and union contracts over the past three years exceeding the school’s revenue growth.

The dire situation facing the district was further laid out during a joint School Committee/City Council meeting in January, where Sciarra said even a 4% increase in the school budget would require a $2.5 million override. Bonner’s preliminary plan called for twice that increase.

“We can’t keep having these conversations because it’s definitely a morale killer,” Bonner said. “We’re at a point where we really need to look long term about how we really need to sustain our schools and our school buildings, and that’s going to come with some change.”

Bonner has previously signaled that staffing cuts were likely necessary in order to balance the budget and keep the district in good financial standing, something met with stalwart opposition from the school’s Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) union.

NASE members said that more members of the union should have been included as part of the planning team.

Kate Fontaine, another NASE member who coordinates the union’s chapter of licensed educators, said that other school staff, such as custodians and peer educators, should also have been included on the team.

“Our hope was that for a strategic plan for our school district, there would have been more of an open call looking for educators as opposed to pinpointing a very small number of individuals,” Fontaine said. “We would have liked to send someone to participate in that process.”

Bonner told the Gazette she plans on holding focus groups with several specific communities in the district, such as parents of English language learners, special needs students and students living in public housing, sometimes meeting directly to discuss the survey questions to ensure as many voices as possible are included in feedback.

“Although people are focusing on who I selected for the planning team, it’s really about focusing on getting your survey submitted,” Bonner said. “That’s the key to having your voice heard.”

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