Mayor boosts Northampton school spending after public outcry

Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees Union and their allies stand outside of Northampton High School on Tuesday, urging the city not to cut jobs as part of this year’s school budget.

Members of the Northampton Association of School Employees Union and their allies stand outside of Northampton High School on Tuesday, urging the city not to cut jobs as part of this year’s school budget. STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 06-05-2024 8:34 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A day before an expected final vote Thursday on the city’s budget for the coming fiscal year, Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra has submitted a new budget that increases school funding by twice her originally planned 4% hike, after more than a month of public pressure and protests over proposed job cuts.

The mayor’s new budget for fiscal 2025 increases school funding by 8% from the current year’s spending by adding an additional $737,556 from the city’s fiscal stability fund, up from a 5% increase the mayor presented to the council earlier this month. According to the mayor’s office, this represents the largest annual increase to the school budget over the last 30 years.

Sciarra presented her revised budget to the Finance Committee on Wednesday evening,

“It’s been a moving experience to see such a dedicated and such an involved school community,” she told the committee, referring to the public response that has greeted her previous spending plans.

“To help mitigate these remaining concerns, I’ve submitted an amended FY 2025 general fund budget.”

To maintain the school budget going forward, Sciarra said, a $3 million Proposition 2½ budget override vote will need to pass next year. Sciarra also indicated that the school budget increase for the next fiscal year would need to be limited to 3%, rather than the 4% annual increase she had pledged during her campaign for mayor.

A day before the announcement of the updated budget, teachers in the district were still mobilizing to put pressure on the city.

While students inside of Northampton High School were preparing for a biology MCAS exam Tuesday morning, teachers outside the building were making one final attempt to make their voices heard by protesting planned job cuts to the district ahead of the council’s meeting Thursday night, at which councilors are expected to vote on the budget.

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“It’s just to make one more effort to get the public aware that we’re being decimated,” said Heather Brown, vice president of the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE) union. “We’re really looking for the mayor to change the conservative fiscal policy that she’s really clinging to.”

Roughly 30 positions across the school district were originally on the chopping block in Sciarra’s original proposed $137 million budget for next fiscal year, which increased school spending by 5% from the current year. A level-services budget that would prevent any job cuts, approved by the Northampton School Committee last month, would be around three times that amount.

It is not immediately clear how the new spending total would impact job cuts, although some positions would likely still be eliminated since the increase does not meet that of the level-services budget. In her preliminary budget review in December, District Superintendent Portia Bonner outlined how an 8% spending increase would result in a reduction of 20 full-time equivalent positions — 15.5 full-time teaching jobs and 4.5 full-time paraprofessional positions.

The mayor’s office has insisted that it must maintain a fiscally responsible budget. Proponents of the level-services budget, including the teachers union, have countered that the city has plenty of reserves in its stabilization funds to keep all positions.

On Tuesday morning, teachers stood outside their places of work before the school day started, dressed in shirts bearing the NASE logo and holding signs in support of the level-services budget. Outside the high school, around 30 teachers and community members stood outside the school building, receiving several beeps of approval from cars passing by.

A similar number were in place at other schools in the district such as Ryan Road and Jackson Street elementary schools, the latter of which would have lost three teachers before the mayor’s last-minute spending addition.

“It was a good day for the elementary schools because they have a lot of field days and other events that the teachers are running,” Brown said. “It was a good day to have a standout.”

Teachers also passed out flyers emphasizing the need to protect Northampton Public Schools from job cuts.

“The academic, social and emotional needs of students have never been greater,” the flyer states. “Staff and program cuts will be harmful for all students and have an especially negative impact on our district’s most vulnerable students.”

Many NASE members spoke during a lengthy budget hearing last week to urge the prevention of cuts, and even students have shown support, with high schoolers occupying the mayor’s office in protest in April.

The council on Thursday is expected to vote on the budget, though they cannot add additional funds to the mayor’s proposal.