Easthampton School Committee, mayor at odds over budget

  • Easthampton High School FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

Staff Writer
Published: 5/25/2022 8:54:41 PM
Modified: 5/25/2022 8:52:44 PM

EASTHAMPTON — School Committee members have estimated that as many as eight staff positions could be cut from the city’s public schools if Mayor Nicole LaChapelle’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 is approved by City Council.

The mayor’s proposed $17.89 million budget for the school district is approximately $560,000 less than the school district’s proposal of $18.45 million. It represents a 4.63% increase from the current year’s budget, compared to the school department’s proposed 7.91% increase.

The proposal came as a shock to School Committee Chairperson Cynthia Kwiecinski, who said LaChapelle had proposed those cuts be made to staffing. In translating what LaChapelle’s proposal means for the district, Kwiecinski said some “savvy parents” had calculated that between five and eight staff positions would need to be cut.

“That is appalling,” said Kwiecinski at Tuesday’s School Committee meeting. “I’m going to be honest: the mayor has always said ‘do not cut staff.’ Always. This is the first time I’m looking at a budget where the mayor is actually rewriting the staff line with a massive cut of five to eight teachers. I don’t understand. That is a massive change. It is horrible during a pandemic.”

LaChapelle disagreed with Kwiecinski’s assertion that she had made a directive to make cuts to school district staffing. Under state law, LaChapelle said the school administration team is the one to make the decision if staffing cuts are to be made.

“That is the sole decision, and I know it’s a very tough decision, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the superintendent, the business manager and members of the Finance Committee,” she said. “But to think that I would give an amount of money regardless if we agree on the amount of money and that I can say, ‘this money needs to go right to staff cuts’ is wrong. It’s simply wrong. I don’t choose staff cuts. I can’t.”

LaChapelle also noted that in her letter to department heads in February, she outlined procedures she’d like each department to undertake in crafting their individual budgets and to include all anticipated compensation without any cuts and show budgetary increases of 1%, 2% and 3%.

“Every other department put the budget in the structure I asked,” she said. “And nowhere in my letter, nowhere, did I say there would be cuts to personnel services.”

Parents protest

Parents, teachers and School Committee members spoke out at Tuesday’s meeting against the mayor’s proposed $17.89 million school budget, with many pleading for LaChapelle to reconsider or urging the attending City Council members to reject her proposal.

“I want what’s best for these kids and I don’t believe the mayor’s budget provides this,” said Jason Urban, a parent of a Maple Street School student. “To simply ask more of our teachers and administrators with less is not the right thing to do, and, frankly, it might not be possible.”

Urban and other parents will participate in a standout will take place this Sunday, May 29, at Nashawannuck Pond from 10 a.m. to noon.

The Easthampton Education Association, a union consisting of the district’s teachers, professional staff and paraeducators, has also announced via Facebook that it will be hosting a standout at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 2, at 50 Payson Ave., before the City Council Finance Committee public hearing will be held on the school district’s budget.

‘Shock, dismay’

LaChapelle delivered the city’s proposed $48.5 million spending plan to the City Council at a May 18 meeting.

The day prior, the School Committee approved an $18.45 million proposed budget, a 7.91% increase from the previous fiscal year.

The May 17 meeting vote was the second the committee had taken on the school district’s budget after LaChapelle raised questions about whether the committee followed proper procedures under the city’s charter.

Since the May 17 School Committee meeting, member Megan Harvey said, the committee has received emails from 87 different people regarding the mayor’s proposed school budget. In trying to summarize the correspondence, Harvey began to get emotional stating that the overwhelming sentiment was “shock, dismay and devastation” in response to LaChapelle’s proposal.

Harvey said that many were in full support of the budget that the School Committee had approved, which Superintendent Allison LeClair described as a “needs-based, essential services.”

Tuesday’s meeting grew contentious as a back-and-forth ensued between Kwiecinski and LaChapelle on whether the school department should utilize funding from its reserves account or not.

Earlier in the meeting, LeClair stated that the school district’s reserves function as the school’s stabilization fund and serve as a funding mechanism in the event of an emergency.

“We can go back and forth and I will until the end, but I will tell you now that I will put a document together and if you hear what you hear in what I say, I can’t change that, that’s what you hear and I take that as real. That’s why I do a budget letter,” said LaChapelle.

“That’s why I consider all the money that the school district has to offer. It’s the school district’s choice to use the reserve in whatever they need to plug the budget … I can’t make those choices.”

LaChapelle recommended the school department redo its budget according to her budget letter.

‘Loss for the children’

School Committee member Marin Goldstein said he was extremely frustrated and felt that the mayor “did not understand” the school department’s budget process, and he questioned why she did not come to the School Committee with concerns as she was involved in the process from the beginning.

“This is not acceptable and this is not the way to bring leadership to the community,” said Goldstein.

LaChapelle said she has abstained from voting on the budget as she felt it would be a conflict of interest as she has a larger part in the overall budget process.

LeClair stated that she will be asking the City Council and mayor to reconsider the school budget request this year.

“Reducing our budget at any level is a loss for the children we serve. It is also a loss for some of the hardest working essential employees in our community,” she said. “Any reduction makes their job harder — creating fewer academic interventions, less SEL support, less afterschool programs — anything — makes it more challenging for the people left behind to do the job.”

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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