Northampton budget stalls over school funding after 2 councilors force a delay in vote

Members of the public attend the Northampton City Council meeting on Thursday to voice their concerns over potential job cuts required by the city’s school budget.

Members of the public attend the Northampton City Council meeting on Thursday to voice their concerns over potential job cuts required by the city’s school budget. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-07-2024 5:01 PM

Modified: 06-08-2024 12:32 PM


NORTHAMPTON — The City Council’s effort to vote on a budget for next fiscal year will have to wait two weeks after two councilors who support giving more money to the school system raised multiple charter objections at Thursday’s meeting.

“I think the entire thing should be delayed,” said Ward 3 Councilor Quaverly Rothenberg, who was joined in the effort by Ward 4 Councilor Jeremy Dubs. “We still very much have work to do.”

In order to delay the vote, the councilors invoked the charter objections. According to the council rules, the first time a vote is made on an adoption of a measure, if a single member present objects to the taking a vote, it shall be postponed until the council’s next meeting, whether regular or special. If two councilors object, it shall be postponed until the next regular meeting. Rothenberg has previously used the charter objection rule at council meetings.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s proposed $137 million budget for fiscal 2025, which begins July 1, will now likely be on the council’s June 20 meeting.

Two related financial orders were also delayed as part of the objections, one of which would allow the city to use a $500,000 gift from Smith College for the school budget, to be distributed over the course of three years. The other would create a special education stabilization fund.

During the meeting, Rothenberg said she was raising charter objections for spending the money from Smith College because she felt it should be spent over the next two years, rather than over three years, allowing more funds to go to into this year’s budget. She also objected to the creation of a special education stabilization fund, saying the money for the fund should go directly to the schools instead.

“We’ve had two rounds now where the public has thought our budget situation was solved, and it is very much still unsolved,” Rothenberg said, referring to multiple changes made in the school budget over the past several weeks. “I have faith in this council and the School Committee that they will be able to work their schedules around the children and make sure that by June 30, we are making use of every dollar that we have for the schools.”

Fluid budget

Proposed funding for Northampton Public Schools has undergone a roller coaster of changes since Superintendent Portia Bonner floated an initial plan in December. That budget showed a hypothetical $40 million budget for fiscal 2025, an 8% increase from the current year.

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Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra at the time stated that a 4% increase, or a $38 million budget, was necessary for the city to maintain a balanced budget. She later revised the increase to 5% following public pressure, and then this week increased the amount again to 8% more than the current year’s spending.

According to Bonner’s first proposal, an 8% budget increase would result in the loss of 20 full-time equivalent positions in the district. It is unclear which specific positions the current 8% budget proposal would affect.

For the council, the charter objections means the budget will be once again taken up at its next meeting, scheduled for June 20. The delay gives proponents more time to pressure Sciarra into supporting a “level-services” school budget, which would mean a 14% increase over the current year and no job cuts next year.

The Northampton Association of School Employees union has made an all-out effort since the start of the year to try to avoid job cuts, staging multiple demonstrations and packing council chambers to state their case. On Thursday, NASE and its supporters again rallied in front of City Hall before the meeting.

NASE President Andrea Egitto criticized the city for not being able to fully fund all jobs for the school district, after spending $3 million to purchase the former First Baptist Church to build a planned Resilience Hub.

“I am very much in favor of social justice and helping those in need. However, those in need right now are the children of Northampton,” Egitto said during Thursday’s meeting. “Don’t waste [money] on things that are just for show. Use it to fix our foundation and our children.”

Multiple members of the School Committee, which voted for the level-services budget in April, urged the council on Thursday to pass the budget with 8% school increase, saying that any further delays would do more harm than good.

“I think there’s been such disagreement in our community that I’m really concerned about, and we have a lot of work to do for our schools and our city,” said Vice Chair Gwen Agna said. “I think we have to pass this budget, we can move on to do that work.”

Ward 4 School Committee member Michael Stein, however, voiced support for delaying the vote to support a level-services budget.

“This compromise, if you want to call it that, is the bare legal minimum that’s required to run our schools,” Stein said. “It’s morally reprehensible.”

The meeting’s public comments section reached its maximum allotted time of 90 minutes, with everyone who spoke regarding the school budget voicing support for ta level-services budget.

That included several parents of students in the district such as Dekkan Abbe, who said he moved to Northampton with his family from New York City, in part due to the Valley’s reputation for education as home of the Five College Consortium.

“This is a college town, this is an education town. The economy in this town is probably built on education,” said Abbe, who has a child at JFK Middle School. “Education should be funded to the max.”

Emily DiMartino said they had a kindergartner in Bridge Street Elementary School and that they and their wife had bought their home in Northampton because of its acceptance of queer couples and their ability to participate in school activities.

“Our schools are not greedy, they are not a deficit. They are underfunded, period,” DiMartino said. “This is not just a dedicated and involved school communities issue. This is a family issue. This is a racial justice issue. This is an income inequality issue. A worker’s issue.”

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