At legislative hearing, Valley leaders say gratitude alone isn’t enough to make early education staff stay

  • Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, hosted a hearing of the Joint Ways and Means Committee on Monday, where education and local aid were two dominating topics. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/15/2023 5:34:33 PM

AMHERST — Clare Higgins, the executive director of Community Action Pioneer Valley, was blunt when describing the current crisis in retaining and finding early education staff.

“They can’t pay the rent or feed their families with gift cards and gratitudes,” Higgins said, referring to those who work in the organization’s early education programs throughout the Valley. “So many educators want to work with us, but they can’t afford to stay.”

Higgins, along with several other voices from across the Valley, had the opportunity to speak to state legislators during this week’s invitation-only Joint Ways and Means Committee hearing to discuss Gov. Maura Healey’s proposed fiscal 2024 budget. Monday’s hearing focused on education and local aid funding.

The meeting was held at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and was chaired by state Sen. Jo Comerford, whose district includes much of Hampshire and Franklin counties. The western Massachusetts locale allowed many from the region to testify in person.

Both a former early educator and mayor of Northampton, Higgins spoke to legislators as part of a panel on early education that included Jondavid Chesloff, president of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, and Amy O’Leary, executive director of advocacy group Strategies for Children.

In addition to issues facing low wages and agencies such as Community Action that are underfunded, Higgins said providing transportation was another key factor in ensuring young children receive proper care, particularly for rural regions. The biggest obstacle, however, is teacher salaries.

“It’s critical for our families to have transportation. Many of them can’t walk their kids to care,” she said. “Us being able to provide transportation is crucial, but honestly, as time has gone on and we’re trying to rebuild, if we have to trade teacher salaries for transportation at some level, we’re going to have to do that.”

Of the many jobs listed on Community Action’s website, the salary for a lead preschool teacher in Northampton is between $22.54 and $23.83 an hour, but other teaching positions with less supervisory responsibilities earn around $19 or $20 an hour.

Healey’s proposed budget gives an additional $400 million to the Department of Early Education, including $100 million for new child care provider grants.

Local aid

Regarding issues of local aid to municipalities, western Massachusetts was well represented at the hearing. Linda Dunlavy, the executive director of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski, and Amherst Council President Lynn Griesemer all spoke on the issue of local aid.

While the panel mostly praised the proposed budget as a good first step, issues still remained. Dunlavy said many rural communities, such as those in Franklin County, often don’t receive enough in state aid, due to population and property values being included as part of the state’s formula in distributing funds.

“Very few of our towns have commercial activity, many few have industrial activity,” Dunlavy said of Franklin County municipalities. “There are many discretionary programs that supplement state aid, but because our towns have very limited staffing, they often can’t apply for these discretionary grants, and oftentimes rural communities are not eligible.”

Suhoski praised the governor’s budget with regard to the local aid it provides to communities, but that ongoing inflation also needed to be taken into consideration when determining the final costs.

“Even in a small town like Athol, I have 110 full-time employees,” Suhoski said. “We have to compete with workers to provide those services, just like in the private sector.”

Griesemer said 85% of Amherst voters supported the Fair Share Amendment, commonly known as the “millionaires’ tax,” last fall, but that Healey’s plan for spending the money raised from the new surcharge on the state’s wealthiest residents would deliver little to Amherst’s municipal government or public schools.

“We’re just asking for our fair share,” Griesemer said. “With a population nearing 40,000, we are caught between large cities and small rural communities.”

The hearing was one of several that Ways and Means is holding over the next month across the state to gather testimony to help legislators make their own budget recommendations.

Upcoming hearing will take place March 21 in Fitchburg focused on health and human services; March 27 at UMass Dartmouth focused on environment and energy and transportation; March 28 in Arlington focused on health and human services; March 31 in Gloucester focused on economic development, house and labor; April 4 in Springfield focused on public safety and the judiciary; and April 7 for public comments.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at


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