Divided over school funding, Northampton council fails to pass mayor’s budget

Andrea Egitto, president of the Northampton Association of School Employees union, speaks outside City Hall at a rally held before a vote on the city's general fund budget.

Andrea Egitto, president of the Northampton Association of School Employees union, speaks outside City Hall at a rally held before a vote on the city's general fund budget. —STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL


Staff Writer

Published: 06-21-2024 11:52 AM

Modified: 06-21-2024 6:03 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A divided City Council late Thursday night failed to reach a two-thirds majority required to approve the mayor’s $137 million budget for fiscal 2025, with funding for the school district continuing to generate controversy and split the community just 10 days before the start of a new budget year.

The council voted 5-3 to approve Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra’s budget on its first attempt, one short of the six votes needed for passage. The mayor said Friday, however, that most of her budget will still be able to be implemented come July 1, based on state law.

Voting against the budget were Councilors Rachel Maiore of Ward 7, Jeremy Dubs of Ward 4 and Quaverly Rothenberg of Ward 3. The five councilors who supported the budget were at-large members Garrick Perry and Marissa Elkins, Stanley Moulton of Ward 1, Deborah Klemer of Ward 2, and Marianne LaBarge of Ward 6.

In voting against the budget, Maiore said she could not in good conscience vote for a budget that would cut an estimated 20 teaching jobs when more could be done to help save at least some of those positions.

“I think everyone’s really tried, including the mayor, but I can confidently say that I think we could go a little further,” Maiore said before the vote. “Northampton can be a very polite type of place. And the flip side of that is it is hard for us sometimes to disagree in a way that’s productive. Because I think what it would have taken to get to a more livable budget is more creative, out-of-the-box thinking.”

The budget would likely have passed had Council President Alex Jarrett been allowed to vote. The Ward 5 councilor, who has said he supports the mayor’s budget, was unable to participate in the final vote due to a conflict of interest that requires him to be recused. Jarrett runs the Pedal People cooperative,  which has a contract with the city’s Central Services department.

“I’m willing to vote for this budget, but I don’t like it,” Jarrett said during Thursday’s meeting. “It’s awful — the choices are awful.”

Sciarra said in a statement Friday that under state law, the budget as originally proposed in May will go into effect July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. That budget increases school funding by 5% from the current fiscal year, and would lead to more job cuts than the later, amended budget put forth by Sciarra that calls for an 8% increase in school funding.

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A special council meeting will need to be held sometime in the next few weeks for the budget, where Sciarra will likely resubmit her 8% increase amendment to the school budget. While the mayor could technically submit a larger  increase to the school budget — the School Committee and teachers union support a 14% spike that would mean no layoffs — she said Friday she won’t do that.

“The delay is unfortunate and unnecessary, but soon Northampton will have a budget in place that balances the city’s needs as best as possible with the limited resources available,” Sciarra said in the statement. “The amended budget, which is a $4.2 million increase over the base last year with a plan to roll those additional funds into the base appropriation going forward, not just as a one-year fix, is the final budget.”

Jarrett said it was still uncertain whether the council would meet either late next week or in early July.

Also passed by the council was an order for a $3 million budget override vote to be placed on the ballot come elections in November. The mayor has stated a budget override is necessary to sustain her amended budget proposal.

School budget divides

Councilors and the community continued to be divided over the proposed $40 million school budget, which despite a $2 million increase from the current year would still lead to the elimination of about 20 positions.

During the public comment period of Thursday’s meeting, one speaker, Rob Kleber of Florence, voiced support for the mayor’s budget.

“Shouldn’t we be caring about the entire Northampton community, including all involved with non-school services — and those who pay taxes to support all services?” Kleber said. “I’m concerned about the effects of this prolonged disagreement. We need to get to work on helping our schools and helping our city as a whole.”

But the overwhelming majority of comments continued to be strongly in favor of the budget approved by the School Committee and endorsed by the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) union that would avoid any job cuts with an increase of $4 million from the current year.

“You have heard the overwhelming will of your constituents and I urge you to fulfill the expectations of your position,” said Zara Usman, a rising junior at Northampton High School and a member of the school’s student union. “Making reductions to offered electives and increasing class size will not allow our school district to maintain its competitive edge.”

Northampton resident Joanne Sickles said the school budget amounted to an existential issue for the city.

“The priority in this community should be our children. They are our future,” she said. “If they’re uneducated, they won’t be able to get decent jobs and this community will die.”

Councilors explain

During discussion, councilors defended their choices in voting. Moulton said he could not put the city in a situation where it had to continue to use non-recurring sources of revenue to fund schools. But he also acknowledged those who supported the union’s budget, stressing the need for future collaboration and unity going forward.

“This has been one of the most contentious and very difficult issues that has involved so many people in the community and really ripped the fabric to some extent that I can remember in decades,” he said. “Just because we vote a certain way doesn’t mean that we haven’t heard those voices.”

Klemer, in her remarks before the vote, criticized the union, accusing members of intimidating people in favor of the mayor’s budget from speaking at public comment.

“Those who didn’t agree with the small group were shut out, criticized, hissed at and their jobs were threatened,” Klemer said. “Vitriol and ire that has been present during the budget season is reminiscent of our current national politics. These tactics are unacceptable.”

Following Klemer, Elkins pointed out that several members of the public attending the meeting, in favor of the NASE budget, were laughing. When an audience member said that several of those laughing were teenage students, Elkins responded, “they came to an adult place.”

A rally was held outside City Hall before Thursday’s council meeting by opponents of both versions of the mayor’s budget, led by NASE and other local labor leaders. Jeff Jones, the president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 1459, said that the Western Massachusetts Area Labor Federation, a coalition of more than 60 unions in the region, was rescinding its previous endorsement of Sciarra from 2021 as a result of the proposed job cuts.

“We’ve been trying to have a discussion with the mayor forever. We sent an email with a letter attached to it. No response. We followed up with the email. No response. We followed up with a phone call and actually got a live person in the mayor’s offices, who said her schedule was frozen because she’s so busy,” Jones said.

“We followed up one more time, and after that, we were done. And that’s a large part of the basis why we are rescinding our endorsement.”

NASE President Andrea Egitto said during the rally that the district could not afford to lose any of its positions the budget will cut, including teachers, paraeducators and interventionists.

“These are people that work with our kids every single day, and they’re being cut as if they are dispensable. They are not dispensable,” she said. “Northampton has balanced its city budget on the backs of our educators and our students. They have not fully funded our schools. And when they come in with one-time money, it’s like a gift that we should all be grateful for. We should not be.”

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