State’s education secretary gets an earful from educators, politicians in Northampton stop

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 05-09-2023 3:04 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Even if the students at Bridge Street Elementary School didn’t know who Patrick Tutwiler was, they could clearly tell he was somebody important.

Students frequently stopped him during a Monday tour of the pre-K-5 school to say hello, shake his hand and even ask for his autograph. When he entered the cafeteria, flanked by a group of state, city and school officials, one student inquired whether he was the president.

Tutwiler, the Massachusetts secretary of education, visited the school as part of a larger tour of public schools across the western half of the state. Tutwiler visited Brightwood Elementary School in Springfield last week, and followed up his tour of Bridge Street with a stop at Pioneer Valley Regional High School in Northfield later in the day on Monday.

Guiding Tutwiler on his tour was Bridge Street Principal Carol Ruyffelaert. Tutwiler was joined by Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra, state Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, state Sen. Jo Comerford, and Northampton School Committee members Emily Serafy-Cox and Gwen Agna. Agna gifted him a copy of her children’s book “True You,” a nod to supporting diverse gender identities in children and public schools.

Prior to the tour, a closed session was held at Union Station in Northampton, attended by Tutwiler and several other local lawmakers including Reps. Natalie Blais and Mindy Domb and Jennifer Puckering, district director for Sen. Jacob Oliveira. Presentations at the session by superintendents of districts across Hampshire and Franklin counties addressed topics beleaguering schools in the region such as staffing, state funding and addressing the needs of rural school districts.

The secretary’s tour of Bridge Street on Monday was at the invitation of Comerford, who chairs the state’s Joint Committee on Higher Education. The invitation is part of an effort by local officials to try to secure more state funding for Northampton’s public school district, which they say is disadvantaged by the current criteria used to determine how much funding municipalities receive for schools.

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“I support Northampton advocating for more money, and that’s why I brought him [Tutwiler] here,” Comerford told the Gazette. “He can’t just understand on paper. He needs to see the children and teachers here.”

In the current proposed state budget for fiscal 2024, the amount set aside for Chapter 70 aid to cities in towns, the funding allotted to school districts is $6.5 billion, a roughly 10% increase from the previous year. But according to the Department of Education and Secondary Education, the amount of preliminary Chapter 70 aid allotted to Northampton for the upcoming fiscal year has increased only by $80,000, about a 1% increase.

As a result, the school faced a deficit in its budget for next fiscal year, with cuts to positions only prevented by an influx of $1.2 million in emergency funds from the city’s budget.

In a press conference held after the tour, Tutwiler said that ensuring schools like Northampton receive necessary funding was something he was committed to addressing.

“We’re here today to visit schools to have the important conversations to understand deeply what the needs are,” Tutwiler said. “We’re focused on looking forward.”

Asked about his experience visiting Bridge Street, Tutwiler said he felt “inspired.”

“This is a wonderful, wonderful school with lots of really great things happening,” he said. “It’s just an honor to be here.”

Northampton city and school officials say that although Northampton has the appearance of a well-off community, its school district is in dire need of additional funding. At Bridge Street School, for example, 43% of its more than 270 students are on a free or reduced lunch program, 47% are considered low-income and 27% have disabilities, according to the school district’s budget.

“It’s probably my biggest concern as mayor,” said Sciarra following the tour. “Chapter 70 is only a tiny amount of our budget compared to other communities, which means that we rely on the taxpayers of Northampton to make up that difference.”

The city of Northampton’s website has also launched a petition, with the support of Sciarra and Andrea Egitto, the president of the Northampton Association of School Employees union, to send to state legislators to call for additional increases in state funding for K-12 education, such as calling for the allocation in $166 million in funds from the Fair Share Amendment, the millionaire’s tax that was approved by voters during last year’s midterm elections.

“In Northampton, we fought hard to pass the Fair Share Amendment to provide much needed funding for our schools and we won,” the letter states. “Yet, now we are faced with a state budget that does not allocate a fair share to K-12 education!”

When asked, Tutwiler acknowledged that not enough proposed Fair Share funds are going to K-12 education.

“In the governor’s first budget, with the Fair Share dollars it was more focused on more pre-K and higher education,” he said. “We will absolutely be taking a closer look at the needs in the K-12 space in the next round.”

Egitto said there are plans to take the fight to the State House, with plans for a demonstration on May 16 in Boston to support increased funding for Northampton Public Schools.

“We can’t wait another year,” Egitto said. “We don’t want to keep going, and we would like to see some of that funding equalized.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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