Northampton School Committee OKs $35.1M budget

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  • Bridge Street School educational support professional Cat Lima, foreground left, and about 80 other members of the Northampton Association of School Employees acknowledge the honking of passing cars as they hold a standout for fair wages on the steps of City Hall on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Andrea Egitto, a kindergarten teacher at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton, takes part in a standout for fair wages by the Northampton Association of School Employees on the steps of City Hall on Thursday, April 14, 2022. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • About 80 members of the Northampton Association of School Employees had gathered for a standout for fair wages on the steps of City Hall by 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 14, 2022, with more expected after the end of the high school day at 3:30. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Dory Graham, an educational support professional at Bridge Street School in Northampton, takes part in a standout for fair wages by the Northampton Association of School Employees on the steps of City Hall on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Andrea Egitto, a kindergarten teacher at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School in Northampton, takes part in a Northampton Association of School Employees standout for fair wages on the steps of City Hall on Thursday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 4/16/2022 7:01:35 AM
Modified: 4/16/2022 7:00:15 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The School Committee voted to approve a $35.1 million district budget on Thursday night that includes an extra $250,000 earmarked for pay negotiations, hours after a small army of educators took to the steps of City Hall to demand higher wages.

For more than two hours in the afternoon, about 80 members of the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) sang songs, chanted slogans and waved signs at passing cars, many of which blared their horns in apparent support of the union.

NASE members argued that the current pay for educational support professionals (ESPs) leaves them virtually impoverished and shows a lack of respect from city budget planners.

The budget for fiscal 2023, already a 4.33% increase over the current year, includes the extra $250,000 for wage negotiations that School Committee members insisted upon, but Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra warned that the source of any extra funding has not been identified and the amount could be slashed during the City Council’s budget approval process.

State law requires the city to pass a balanced budget. Fiscal 2023 runs from July 1, 2022 to June 1, 2023.

Extra wage funding approved

The budget and property subcommittee proposed two different scenarios to the full School Committee that would free up money for wages but cut line items in other areas. Ultimately, the committee chose the first scenario, which added $332,352 for wage negotiations.

The first scenario called for cutting $96,000 from the maintenance budget and $74,142 from IT, among other changes. The line-item cuts total $332,352 and include the elimination of a clerical position at Leeds Elementary School.

The $250,000 that was also approved by the School Committee is in addition to the first scenario’s total and is meant to try to prevent the elimination of a sixth grade teacher job at JFK Middle School and a first grade teacher job at Jackson Street Elementary School.    

Both scenarios delayed the implementation of organic turf management at the schools until the following fiscal year and reduced a Ryan Road Elementary School special education teacher position from five days a week to three.

Ward 4 School Committee member Michael Stein referred to Northampton educators’ pay as a “crisis” for those who “have worked harder than almost anyone” during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the City Council could reduce the School Committee’s budget request, but the committee should increase the proposal anyway.

“There are many factors that have led us to be one of the lowest-paying districts, some that are in the city’s control, some that aren’t,” Stein said. “They’re asking us for respect, and they’re asking us for support, and they’re asking the School Committee to stand up for them, and I think we need to do that.”

Stein said the majority-female teacher workforce is perpetually undervalued and underpaid.

“We have squeezed the greatest amount of juice from the stone that we will ever get, and people are leaving,” Stein said.

Committee vice chair Gwen Agna, a former principal at Jackson Street, said she was “deeply, deeply, deeply upset about the situation we’re in,” describing more than three decades worth of cutbacks, layoffs and state funding schemes that have “decimated” local schools.

“I feel like I will engender lots of feelings of betrayal in passing this budget; however, I feel really stuck about this,” Agna said. Some participants in the virtual meeting started showing a thumbs-down, which Agna acknowledged before saying, “I really hope we can find our way out of this eventually. I’m really sorry that we’re in this situation.”

The extra $250,000 was added later in the meeting.

Ward 2 member Holly Ghazey, who received a “pink slip” from Agna years ago as part of a round of budget cuts, said the district is “on the cusp of an exodus” of educators moving on to other cities.

“I’ve been a teacher too long to be able to live with this budget. … I know we’re the victim of a rotten funding formula,” Ghazey said. “I don’t know where the city gets the money, but it warrants a citywide discussion to see where our priorities are, and I hope our priorities are with our children.”

Reached on Friday, Agna said contract negotiations between the district and the six NASE employee bargaining units are confidential and any wage increases will only become public after a deal is in place. 

‘We’re not going to take it anymore’

At the afternoon NASE rally, Dory Graham, an ESP at Bridge Street, said they have many coworkers in the district with second jobs but remain in dire financial straits.

“I used to work two jobs, as well, which is exhausting,” Graham, who earns $18 an hour and wears Teflon anti-bite sleeves at work, said. “It’s not safe for us to be so worn down and beaten down. … There’s absolutely nothing better to me (than being an ESP), but I still might have to walk away because I can’t afford a big medical expense. It’s awful.”

Another Bridge Street ESP, Cat Lima, said she still lives at home in Monson; she wakes up every morning at 4:30 a.m. and drives more than 45 minutes to work, where she earns around $16 per hour. She works one-on-one with a kindergarten student with autism.

“I’m a young person who has student loans,” Lima said. “All I’m trying to do is move out to Northampton, but I can’t. … How am I supposed to save money to move anywhere?”

She said that low-paid educators are often treated like their financial situation is a “badge of honor.”

“No, no. I’ll do it because I love it, but come on,” Lima said. 

Union members were not satisfied with the wage increases proposed by the city so far during ongoing contract negotiations. Andrea Egitto, the NASE president, said the proposals do not keep pace with inflation or other rising costs for educators.

“Our ESPs start at $16.41 an hour, and as anybody knows, you can’t survive on that, certainly not in Northampton … and $21 is the top,” Egitto said. “Our ESPs, who work with our most vulnerable students, can go and make way more money flipping burgers at Five Guys or working at Target.”

People want to live in Northampton because of its excellent public schools, she said, and that reputation was built “on the backs of educators for decades,” Egitto said. “We’re not going to take it anymore.”

Shortly after Egitto spoke to a reporter, the rallygoers broke into song: “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” the iconic anti-authority song by Twisted Sister.

“The last contract was excellent because everybody gathered together with the community and we worked together,” Jeff Gosselin, a 10-year ESP who lives in Westfield, said. “Even the firefighters fought for us the last time. … But now, things have changed, the dynamics changed. We’ve got to keep it on the mindset of everyone that teachers are important.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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