Editorial: Mayor raises new questions on old school — Smith Vocational
Mayor David Narkewicz is starting a critical conversation for Northampton as he considers making Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School part of the city’s public school system. It will be a difficult conversation, and early reaction suggests it will be a divisive one if the mayor cannot clearly demonstrate his move will be good for the city’s schools while also maintaining the strength and identity of Smith Vocational.
Smith Vocational is a Northampton public school but is run independent of the city school department. The question of its status has been raised in the past. Immediate budget problems have brought the issue to the fore again.
Smith Vocational trustees this month voted 5-2 for an $8.32 million budget for the coming year fiscal that calls for $6.32 million from the city. That is $80,431 more than the $6.24 million Narkewicz has proposed. The dissenting votes were Narkewicz and Northampton School Superintendent Brian Salzer, who sit on the board.
Narkewicz notes that city’s 2014 contribution of $6.24 million for Smith Vocational is a 6.4 percent increase over this year. Northampton schools are only budgeted for a 2.2 percent increase and the mayor is asking voters to approve a Proposition 2½ override to avoid school and municipal layoffs.
The vocational school trustees’ budget vote reflects the breakdown of a long-standing, informal agreement between Smith trustees and the city’s mayors, going back to the late 1990s.
The agreement essentially let the city fund the vocational budget at less than required by state law, with the understanding the city would pay for capital improvements and contribute in other ways. State education officials signed off on it.
Tight budgets the last few years have seen the city reduce or eliminate these capital expenditures. Now, the vocational school’s new superintendent, Jeffrey Peterson, is crying foul. Peterson says Northampton provided only 73.4 percent of state-required net school spending to Smith Vocational in 2013. He and trustees want 100 percent in 2014. In an April 2 email to Peterson, Narkewicz cited ongoing concerns with “inefficiencies and inequities related to Northampton maintaining two local school systems.” The mayor said once the 2014 fiscal year budget is complete, he will ask the City Council to petition the Legislature to create “one, unified K-12 district that can provide a high-quality education for both general and vocational and agricultural students.”
Such a change would mean Smith’s budget and funding would be determined by the city School Committee. Narkewicz notes he raised this question last fall, before Petersen was hired. He called it a long-standing issue and believes the current economic climate no longer allows the city to maintain two separate school systems. In that way, Smith Vocational is unique: All other vocational schools in the state operate as either their own regional districts or as part of a municipal one.
Northampton contributes to the school’s operating budget and city students do not pay tuition. Other communities pay tuition for their students to attend. Of the 412 students enrolled, 107 are from Northampton. In 1995, Mayor Mary Ford led an effort to make the vocational school a separate regional district. That plan failed to pass muster with the Legislature.
Smith Vocational alternates traditional academic course work with hands-on training in the trades. It enjoys a good reputation in educational circles and among businesses that hire graduates. There is strong loyalty to the school, its tradition and how it serves the community. Smith Vocational trustees and the new superintendent are on record as opposing any change of status and voices of public support for maintaining the school’s independence are being heard.
The conversation has started. We expect it will be lively. Narkewicz needs to make his case to a community. He faces a large number of skeptics who will want to know the long-term benefit to an important and cherished institution, as well as to the city.