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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.

JERREY ROBERTS Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz has proposed unifying the Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School with the Northampton public schools. Purchase photo reprints »

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.

Related

Mary L. Ford: City’s energetic mayor embarks on a needed reform of Smith Vocational

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — Bringing to public awareness the need to drastically re-examine how the Smith Vocational and Agricultural School is funded and governed is an act of bravery on the part of Mayor David Narkewicz. First, it’s clearly political bravery, as there are lots of voting-age constituencies who are accustomed to the status quo, and none that I can identify who …

Leslie Skantz-Hodgson: Vocational school has earned its independence

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — It is surprising to me that the city of Northampton, with its reputation for innovation and progressivism in career-technical education, is now considering a step backwards. Mayor David Narkewicz says he would like to merge Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School into the city school department, but this would be wrong, counter-productive and short-sighted on many levels. From …

Paul Garvey: Mayor’s proposal would diminish school quality

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

To the editor: For more than 100 years, Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School has been considered one of the finest vocational schools in the state. For years, graduates have created a reputation for performing outstanding work in the various trades taught at the school. The Northampton mayor’s suggestion to combine the two high schools of the city under one …

Nat Reade: Mayor right to consider Smith Vocational change

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

To the editor: I don’t know anything about Smith Vocational or its budget. I do think, however, that we’re lucky in Northampton to have a mayor who’s willing to consider every option to deal with our money problems, no matter how hard or unpopular they might be. Given all the cuts in our public schools over the past several years, …

Legacy Comments1

Mayor David Narkewicz’s proposal can only be defined as a "hostile takeover”, targeting Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School (SVHS) even though the School Board rejected his offer. Yet the Mayor continues to pursue this hostile take over without the financial working knowledge or the concept of SVHS. Most disturbing is his willingness to do this without consideration of the students and the incomparable education provided at SVHS. Mayor David Narkewicz’s inability to run a city within the budget along with his willingness to decimate the exceptional education provided at SVHS demonstrates his lack of judgment and reckless irresponsibility. It has exposed him as an ineffective and precarious Mayor; leading to layoffs and cuts as the future of SVHS. Not once has the Mayor stated the negative impacts and consequences of the education to students at SVHS nor has he shown any concern for students if this proposal should go through. This proposal is a disgrace and a slap in the face to Oliver Smith who provided the funding to establish SVHS. It brings great shame on Northampton and the Mayor to even propose this, and will bring great shame on the Northampton City Council if they support him in this ill conceived idea. Perhaps the Mayor needs to make the tough decision by challenging Charter Schools which drain our public school budget, as well as re-evaluate the amount of Smith College’s property tax exemption allotted from taxation, which costs our city millions in lost revenues, instead of his irresponsible decision of going after the students at SVHS. The fact is that SVHS works within their budget and provides an outstanding education to our children. Why if not for Mayor David Narkewicz‘s own political agenda would he want to ruin this; he cannot work with his budget, and is willing to use Smith Vocational Agricultural H.S. students as his scapegoat. I can only hope in the upcoming election in November that there is someone who will run against him and win to do the job clearly Mayor David Narkewicz is unable to do.

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