Mayor wants Smith Vocational under Northampton schools
Mayior David Narkewicz has proposed state legislation which would make Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, seen here at a fall farm day open house in 2008, part of the Northampton public schools. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — Mayor David J. Narkewicz is pushing to change the way the 105-year-old Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School school is organized, based on a budget dispute with its leaders.
Narkewicz has informed Smith Voke leaders that after the city budget process concludes next month, he intends to seek City Council backing for special state legislation to make it part of the Northampton public schools.
Narkewicz emphasized that he has been exploring the idea of reorganizing Smith Voke since before budget talks began in January. “The budget situation has brought this to the fore, but this is a long-standing issue,” he said. “I’ve been pushing for a conversation about this since before we hired the new superintendent” at Smith Voke last fall.
The mayor said he believes Smith Voke’s status as an independent school is no longer workable in the current economic climate because it requires the city to maintain two separate school systems.
Smith Voke’s status is unique: All other vocational schools in Massachusetts operate as either their own regional districts or as part of a municipal school district, according to the state.
“Northampton is unlike any other city or town in that way,” Narkewicz said. “I love and support the mission of Smith Voke. My issue is around the sustainability of it.”
In an April 2 email to the vocational school’s new superintendent, Jeffrey Peterson, Narkewicz cited ongoing concerns with “inefficiencies and inequities related to Northampton maintaining two local school systems.” The mayor also signaled his intent to seek authorization to petition for special legislation 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 Voke’s funding would be determined by the city School Committee.
Founded as an independent school in 1908 with 114 students, Smith Voke was funded initially from the estate of Oliver Smith. In 1914, Hampshire County voters approved a referendum to make it a countywide school, according to a history on the school’s website. In 1920, the city mayor and the superintendent of the Northampton schools were named to the vocational school’s board of trustees.
Northampton residents do not pay tuition to Smith Voke, which draws students from throughout the region, because the city contributes to its operating budget. Currently, 107 of the vocational high school’s 412 students are Northampton residents, according to Peterson’s office.
This is not the first time the city has raised the possibility of reorganizing Smith Voke.
Arthur Apostolou, who retired as vocational school superintendent last fall, remembers a time during the administration of Mayor Mary Ford when there was debate about making Smith Voke a traditional regional high school or part of the city school system.
“The community rejected that,” Apostolou said. “The school needs to have autonomy and needs to have people in charge who are looking at technical programs.”
Thomas FitzGerald of Florence, a longtime vocational school trustee, feels the same about Narkewicz’s current call for change.
“I think putting Smith under the city schools would be a mistake,” he said. “Northampton prides itself on being different. But here, people are saying ‘one size fits all.’ I think that’s shortsighted.”
Smith Voke’ new superintendent doesn’t want to change the school’s independent status. What he wants is to increase the level of funding the city has been providing in recent budget years.
Pointing to state figures showing Northampton provided only 73.4 percent of required net school spending to Smith Voke for 2013, Peterson said he wants the city to fund the school at 100 percent in the coming fiscal year.
“This has been going on for a while but nobody’s chosen to fight it,” added Peterson, who was hired last fall to replace Apostolou. “That’s what I’m going to do. My goal is to have this school be the best in the state. I don’t think people realize we are being underfunded.”
Last week, Smith Voke’s trustees voted 5-2 for an $8.32 million spending plan for the coming year that calls for $6.32 million from the city. That is $80,431 more than the $6.24 million Narkewicz has proposed for Smith Voke for the fiscal year that begins in July.
The mayor cast one of two “no” votes against Smith Voke’s budget. The other was Northampton schools Superintendent Brian Salzer.
The current budget dispute marks the end of what city and Smith Voke leaders describe as a tacit agreement in force since the late 1990s. Under that agreement, the vocational school accepted city funding that in some years was below minimums set by state Chapter 70 formulas in recognition that Northampton also provides funds for employee health insurance and capital improvements at Smith Voke.
“We made a kind of arrangement,” said Smith Voke trustees Chairman John E. Cotton of Florence. “They didn’t give us all the (net school) money but they came up with money for parking lots, the auto body shop and other things.”
As the city’s budget situation has worsened, Cotton said Smith Voke has received little or no funding for capital improvements in recent years. “So that agreement is no longer there,” he said.
Jeff Wulfson, deputy commissioner for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said that at the joint request of then-Mayor Clare Higgins and Smith Voke Superintendent Frank Llamas, the department did not penalize Northampton in past years when it provided less than the required net school spending to the vocational school.
“Their request was in part due to the extra capital funding provided to the city by the school,” Wulfson said in a March 5 letter to Narkewicz and Peterson. “We also recognized that the city’s total net school spending, for both the Smith school and the Northampton public schools, exceeded the combined requirement” for each of the two districts.
Higgins, a six-term mayor who is now executive director of Community Action in Greenfield, said the agreement with the vocational school also reflected a shared recognition that the state’s funding formula doesn’t fit Smith Voke’s hybrid structure.
“It’s not a regional school where member schools are each paying their equal share,” Higgins said. “Northampton is the only school community held to net school spending” in Smith Voke’s case.
But now that Smith Voke has withdrawn from the former “accommodation” with the city, Wulfson said in his letter, “I am advising the city and the school that Smith’s net school spending requirement will be in full effect for fiscal year 2014 and subsequent years.”
Failure to meet that requirement could result in the loss of some of the city’s Chapter 70 funding, he said.
Peterson said the vocational school needs more money to support a new math teacher, new engineering classes and new football and girls volleyball programs at Smith Voke.
“We are in good shape financially, with no layoffs,” he said. “But we want to be doing more.”
Narkewicz countered that the $6.24 million he has proposed in next year’s budget for Smith Voke represents a 6.4 percent increase over this year’s city funding of $5.87 million. That percentage is more than double the 2.2 percent increase the mayor has proposed for the Northampton schools for 2014.
In his email to Peterson, the mayor expressed regret that the two sides could not reach agreement on a budget for the coming year.
But regardless of that outcome, Narkewicz said he plans to start a “larger community conversation” about reorganizing Smith Voke.
“I will be proactive in making changes,” he said.