Mary L. Ford: City’s energetic mayor embarks on a needed reform of Smith Vocational
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 will rally to a call for change.
Second, it’s just about the most complex policy and program change a relatively small, under-funded city administration might choose to make. Third, this shows once again how even well-meaning efforts on Beacon Hill to address the public’s needs only complicate things for us in Northampton and surrounding towns, where we are the fortunate heirs of unique institutions generously and thoughtfully established years ago.
Institutions like the Academy of Music, Forbes and Lilly libraries, Look and Childs parks and not least Smith Vocational have functioned with the goals of public service and have been served well by their staff and boards. None could be established in the same mode today under state and local government frameworks.
As mayor, I faithfully attended Smith Vocational board meetings as one of five trustees.
I empathized with teachers and administrators trying to serve an ever-widening diversity of students. I tried with notable lack of success to understand how the two leadership staff positions of principal and superintendent functioned and how they were comparable or different from the better-known job descriptions in our main school system, whose board I chaired.
I was horrified by the high costs of the vocational system even as, year after year, I became more impressed with the teachers and staff and their dedication to mentoring, skills training, instilling life-long learning aptitudes and building habits of teamwork and work-readiness.
Is Mayor Narkewicz worried about the size of the Smith School budget? It would be impossible not to. He is at least the third mayor in a row, if not more, working to revise municipal operations to meet the high demands of our citizens and our own standards in a climate that insists government services cost too much.
There is no conceivable way for this city to meet the figures established by legislative processes for our spending on the vocational students. The funding formulas, similar to those for charter school and schools of choice transfers, were established decades ago in a one-size-fits-all formula to the relief of those who voted for “school reform,” as they could not figure out a politically feasible and fair funding scheme.
Poor big cities and more comfortable Boston-area towns needed to be satisfied. Places too different had no clout. Those legislative leaders who have not been weeded out by scandal and corruption admit they never did understand the roughly 30 demographic and community variables and factors utilized to establish the set of figures that now govern state aid and local school contributions.
Traditionally Northampton’s main school system and the vocational school have seemed friendly enough, yet I am convinced the various Northampton superintendents, as well as mayors, feel an inherent competition, if not direct conflict, while sitting on the Smith Vocational board — where the funding and governance seem so different and loom so large in the overall city budget.
But in that room we typically vote what seems right for Smith.
Our brave mayor now is launching us into a discussion that should improve the financing process over the longer term.
Whole classes of graduate students could earn advanced degrees figuring this out. Even a very energetic mayor and knowledgeable finance director don’t have enough hours in the day to research all the funding patterns and governing mechanisms. That’s why I gave up the effort years ago, more than because of the difficulties sure to be encountered politically within the city, the school itself and in sending towns.
If Mayor Narkewicz wants to appoint a study committee, he will need to be Solomon-like in its composition. If hiring a consultant makes sense, it will be necessary to find one with experience and without any favorite models.
We have a history of making things work here that should be honored. Congratulations to a politician undertaking a major reform!
Mary L. Ford is a former mayor of Northampton.