City reserves to help stave off significant cuts in Northampton schools

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 04-06-2023 9:47 AM

NORTHAMPTON — The city will use some of its emergency funds to provide relief to the Northampton Public School district’s $2.3 million budget deficit, avoiding many of the proposed cuts the district had planned for the coming fiscal year.

Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra said Tuesday that she intends to use $1.2 million from the city’s stabilization fund to help close the gap. The school district, meanwhile, intends to use pandemic relief money for education and other funds to reduce the gap to about $649,300.

That deficit would still result in some cuts in fiscal 2024, which begins July 1, but the shortfall could be closed through attrition by not filling currently open positions or replacing retiring staff without significant loss of staff or any programming, Sciarra said in statement. Interim Superintendent Jannell Pearson-Campbell added that the district will also reduce spending for curriculum instruction and mental health support.

The city noted that additional cuts may happen next fiscal year depending on how much tax revenue comes in.

“These stabilization funds provide the right balance between keeping our schools strong and avoiding drastic deep cuts, while at the same time responsibly addressing unsustainable budget practices,” Sciarra said.

When the school budget was initially unveiled at the beginning of March, the schools faced a $1.2 million deficit. That number jumped to $2.3 million in a revised budget put out at the end of March. The increase is being attributed to a $1.1 million deficit in the school choice account. The deficit in that account stems from district spending from the account exceeding the revenue it receives from other municipalities that send students to Northampton.

As they have said in the past, city and school officials attribute the deficit to a lack of proper state funding via the commonwealth’s Chapter 70 Funding Program. Northampton ranks near the bottom of all cities and towns in the state based on the funding formula established by the Massachusetts Reform Act of 1993.

Sciarra, along with school committee Vice Chair Gwen Agna, said they intend to work with state legislators including Sen. Jo Comerford and Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa to try to secure more funding for the district.

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“We are grateful for the mayor’s efforts to form a coalition of stakeholders and representatives to plug a significant portion of the deficit and to build a stabilization plan for the future,” Agna said in a statement. “It takes a village, and ours is a strong and determined one.”

The decision to provide emergency funds was also welcomed by the Northampton Association of School Employees, the union representing teachers and other employees in the district.

“I want to express my deepest gratitude to the Mayor for stepping in to address the budget shortfall in our public schools,” said Andrea Egitto, the president of the union, in a statement. “Together, we are committed to retaining the highest quality staff and maintaining our vibrant school communities.”

The district will usher in a new administration this summer, with Portia Bonner set to assume the superintendent role in a permanent position, taking over for Pearson-Campbell.

According to the city release, the coming administration will be tasked by the mayor with producing a school plan with additional spending reductions by December, earlier than usual, for the 2025 fiscal year, a plan that looks to avoid relying on the school choice fund or one-time and pandemic-related funds.

“The school budget must be balanced using stable, recurring revenues to pay for recurring expenses,” said Sciarra in the release. “But the gap that has been created by relying on temporary emergency relief and depleting the School Choice fund is too large to responsibly solve through drastic cuts in a single year.”

The school committee will look to approve the budget and present it to the mayor before its deadline of April 14.

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

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