Guest columnist Andrea Egitto: Mayor’s budget still shorting children

Northampton High School

Northampton High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By ANDREA EGITTO

Published: 05-29-2024 4:28 PM

 

The roughly $3 million difference between Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s budget proposal for Northampton Public Schools and the Northampton School Committee’s budget proposal seems rather small in the context of a city budget that will be around $137 million for the fiscal year starting in July.

But the impact on our schools without that $3 million will be huge, translating into the elimination of more than 30 positions, each and every one crucial to maintaining the quality of Northampton’s beloved public schools.

And that’s not hyperbole; even before facing the prospect of these deep cuts, our schools were not fully staffed to address the needs of students.

Educators here and across the state have, for years, been raising concerns about the increasing needs of students and the falling staffing levels. Coming out of the pandemic, we have seen students needing more support, and not just to address academics but also to take care of social and emotional issues that they are facing.

Creating the programs and learning environments that ensure all students can grow and thrive takes time, money and staff. Slashing staff and services as students return to routines disrupted by the pandemic is a recipe for diminishing the school experience for entire classrooms — or even entire schools.

To avoid this, we need more school staff, and not just more teachers; we need more paraprofessionals, more counselors and more nurses.

These are the positions working with our most vulnerable students, and these are the positions we are afraid will be cut along with teachers, resulting in larger class sizes making individualized attention to students that much more difficult to achieve.

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In protecting current services, we at least stand a chance of stopping conditions from getting worse.

The School Committee and the families of Northampton Public Schools understand that, and we have been pleading with Mayor Sciarra to use funds available to the city to pay for schools our community deserves.

We applaud Mayor Sciarra’s decision to add to her original budget proposal for the schools. But she has the revenue to fully close the gap, and we urge her to do so.

We are not advocating for the use of funds that will compromise our city’s fiscal health. But between the historic underestimating of city revenues and various unrestricted reserve funds, Northampton can easily fund the School Committee’s proposed level-services budget.

In 2023 alone, Northampton underestimated local receipts by roughly $5 million. In the same year, Northampton held approximately $13 million in free cash, and that was nearly 11.5% of the overall city budget. The state’s Financial Management Resource Bureau advises that a healthy free cash target to maintain from year to year is an amount equal to 5% to 7% of a municipal budget.

Against that backdrop, Northampton in good conscience cannot cut school staff, jeopardizing the safety and well-being of students and staff.

Without enough paraeducators, our students with special education plans are at risk of not getting what they are legally entitled to receive. And no student should have to lose learning time because there simply were not enough educators to cover all the classes on a particular day.

And as many educators pointed out during a recent City Council meeting, any additional staff cuts will exacerbate disruptions stemming from students experiencing emotional dysregulation, putting staff and other students at risk of physical harm.

Being prudent is wise. But being miserly is not.

Money spent on preserving the excellent quality of Northampton Public Schools is an investment in our city’s quality of life and protects the foundation upon which we will build our future.

Andrea Egitto is a kindergarten teacher at RK Finn Ryan Road Elementary School and president of the Northampton Association of School Employees.