On 4/26 the City Council and School Committee sat down to hold a joint meeting regarding the budget proposals for the Northampton public schools. Most of the discussion involved the difficulty that the School Committee, in conjunction with the superintendent, had when figuring out how to level-fund their budget. The superintendent presented the council with outlines of a variety of budgets, one maintaining level funding, another providing level services, and then a third that was “Educationally Sound”. Finally, there was a total estimated budget which was the sum of the superintendent’s educationally sound budget and the various requests from each school council across the district. Here is how I understood the budgets:
Level Funded Option: $24,003,643
This option cuts from the budget in order to fund some of the important increases and also to fund the increases in teacher pay of $271,000. The outline of what 6 FTE Non-Core Academic Teachers positions would be cut ($292,000) is on page 5.
Level Service Option: $24,274,643
This option asks for additional $271,000 from the city for the increase in teacher pay that had been bargained for and promised to them. If the city could find this amount to give to the school department, instead of 6 Full-Time Equivalent Non-Core Academic Teachers being cut from the department, only 2 FTEs would be cut. Other cost savings against the budget increases would come from teacher retirements and cutting 3 Literacy Intervention Coaches. The superintendent was careful to distinguish between Literacy Intervention Coaches and Reading Teachers, which will continue to be funded. Literacy Intervention Coaches have been operating in the schools for the past few years and have been teaching teachers (and some students) on new methods of teaching reading. The superintendent believes that adequate training has been provided to teachers (though more support would of course be good) to allow for cutting the Literacy Intervention Coaches.
Educationally Sound Option: $25,385,798
This budget includes the the request for the aforementioned $271,000 and also asks for an additional $1,111,155 to fund a variety of departmental needs. This is on page 7.
Educationally Sound Option + Requests from School Councils: $26,771,298
This final number seemed to be the estimated budget for a number of good ideas and wished-for items that each school council from each school has passed on to the superintendent’s office. Some of the ideas were not yet given a budget. This is on page 8.
During the discussion of these various options, Councilor Dwight brought up the point that the City Council, though in charge of passing the budget, is not able to specifically allocate to specific departments. The mayor’s proposed budget can only be cut, and though anything may specifically be cut, the council does not have the ability to give savings or additional funding to any department. The council may recommend the mayor fund a particular department, but once cuts are made further discretion is left to the mayor. (Though the council may cut again, or fail to pass the budget, if it disagrees with how the mayor allocated funds.)
Another important matter that was not reflected in the budget outlines the superintendent gave the council was that the mayor had already allocated $208,000 of the added funding found in the state’s house budget to the school department. This leaves only a deficit of $64,000 for the Level Services budget the superintendent proposed.
Despite this, cuts are always difficult and I’m willing to defer to the school committee and the school administration to figure out which difficult decisions to make. The biggest issue is the “Educationally Sound” budget, which is well above a level the city could fund without significant cuts to other departments or an increase in taxes. The superintendent has argued that a budget like the Educationally Sound one would not only staunch the flow of students out to school choice and charter schools but also reverse the flow, and thus pay for itself by not only bringing school choice students into the district but also stopping the flow of funds from the district into charter schools (as Northampton students came back into the district) . The superintendent argued that the cost of these final budgets, ~$2.5M, is approximately the same amount that the district loses each year to school choice and charter schools.
I did not see a way to fund this Educationally Sound budget without either significant and painful cuts to other city services or a tax increase. It was at this point during the meeting where I asked the superintendent whether he was willing to stake his reputation on the efficacy of his proposals and ask the citizens of Northampton for a tax override to fund them. This question kicked off a discussion in which both School Committee members and Councilors discussed their views on an override for these purposes. Obviously the council has to pass a budget prior to asking the citizens for an override, so in many ways this discussion was moot for the upcoming fiscal year. However, the option may be raised again as the superintendent contemplates the FY2014 budget. As it stands now, it seems the school department will come close to its level services budget request.