David Narkewicz commentary: Strength in combining schools
JERREY ROBERTS Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz has proposed unifying the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School with the Northampton public schools. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — When I took the oath of office as mayor, I pledged to look at every aspect of our government to ensure quality, cost-effective city services and wise stewardship of taxpayer dollars. I’ve worked hard to keep my promise, but it’s meant asking tough questions and being unwilling to accept “because we’ve always done it this way” as a reason for not considering new ideas or change.
This is why I’m proposing we have a community conversation in the coming months about combining Northampton’s two separate school systems into one unified district.
Northampton is the only municipality in the state operating two separate local school systems: the Northampton public schools serving 2,722 students and Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School serving 417 students, 108 of them from Northampton.
We have two separate elected governing bodies: the Northampton School Committee and the Smith Vocational Board of Trustees. We have two separate full-time superintendents of schools, two business managers, two directors of special education, two directors of maintenance, two information technology (I.T.) directors and a host of other duplicative functions.
Every dollar spent administering these two separate systems is a dollar not spent on kids and teachers in classrooms or shops. Beyond the financial costs, Northampton has two excellent high schools located a few blocks apart that might as well be 100 miles apart in terms of lost potential for educational collaboration.
Under the current structure, there is little or no opportunity for students in each of these separate Northampton schools to benefit from classes, activities and sports available only at the other school. The same missed opportunity applies to potential teacher collaborations between our two high schools.
We are the only community structured this way. All other Massachusetts cities provide vocational and technical education either through regional district participation or as part of their local K-12 school departments.
Here in western Massachusetts the cities of Chicopee, Westfield, Holyoke, Springfield and Pittsfield each have vocational and technical high schools that are part of their overall school districts.
The new Smith Vocational superintendent himself came to us from Chicopee Comprehensive High School, which provides career and technical education as part of the Chicopee public schools.
State formulas designed to ensure that municipalities adequately fund education were written to fit these local or regional models, neither of which accurately apply to Northampton. Children from surrounding communities make up 74 percent of the students at Smith Vocational, but the non-resident tuition paid by those sending communities doesn’t cover the full costs of running the school. These include the millions in capital costs needed to maintain and upgrade the facilities, debt service on past capital projects and the health insurance of its current and future retirees.
The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education acknowledges that Northampton bears a disproportionate share of the costs of running Smith Vocational at the same time that its funding formulas contend we don’t pay enough. When pressed to resolve this contradiction, DESE has formally recommended “special legislation or a change in the school’s status,” including the option of “merging the school with the Northampton public school district.”
I have great respect for the 105-year history and tradition of Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School and take my responsibility as one of its five trustees very seriously. I have immersed myself in the life and workings of the school and proudly attended numerous school events, shop advisory meetings and graduation. I’ve also asked a lot of tough questions about the school’s administration and finances and demanded greater transparency in its budgeting practices.
My responsibility as both mayor and trustee is to ensure that Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School remains strong and sustainable for another 100 years. If our goal in a time of diminishing resources is to maximize tax dollars for kids in the classrooms and shops of Smith Vocational, then we must be willing to question whether spending a disproportionate number of those dollars on duplicative administration makes good fiscal and educational sense.
If our goal is to ensure a quality, 21st century vocational and technical education, we cannot be wedded to an inefficient organizational structure established in the early part of the last century.
One of the other pledges I made to the citizens of Northampton during my inaugural address was to “sustain the proud tradition of outstanding career-oriented instruction” at Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School. I firmly believe that unifying Northampton’s two local school systems is the best way forward in making good on that pledge.
David Narkewicz is the mayor of Northampton.