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Saved by override

The proposed $30.64 million budget for the fiscal year that begins in July represents an increase of 4 percent over last year’s total schools budget of $29.04 million, according to the school department. The School Committee will take up the plan when it meets Thursday.

According to Don Scott, the school department’s interim business manager, the plan calls for $26.36 million from the city — an increase of $856,378, or 3.4 percent over last year’s appropriation of $25.5 million. The request to the city is also $327,787 more than the amount required to maintain existing staff and programs in the city schools.

School Committee Vice Chairman Edward Zuchowski said a $2.5 million property tax override voters approved last July not only prevented cuts in teaching positions and school programs slated for this year, but also provided funds above “level services” for the coming fiscal year.

“This is the best budget I’ve sat through in my six years on the School Committee,” Zuchowski told members of the board’s Budget and Property Subcommittee last week. “The people in Northampton get a pat on the back for this one.”

The budget proposal is on the agenda for Thursday’s School Committee meeting at 7:15 p.m. at JFK Middle School. The board is scheduled to vote on the plan April 10.

Mayor David J. Narkewicz will present his final budget to the City Council in May. Under terms of the City Charter, council members must approve a budget for Northampton by June 30.

The school department will use the additional $856,378 proposed for next year for new staff positions and school supplies and software, according to a budget summary provided to subcommittee members. Administrators are proposing two new support staff members and a technology specialist at the elementary schools, a support specialist at JFK Middle school, and a reading specialist at R.K. Finn Ryan Road School.

In addition, funds will be used to increase some existing positions from part-time to full-time status, including a districtwide social worker, a technology and video instructor at Northampton High School, a special education teacher at the R.K. Finn Ryan Road School and a speech teacher at Leeds School.

The largest budget expense is an estimated $550,000 for step raises and cost-of-living increases called for in collective bargaining agreements with school employees, according to the summary. That amounts to more than half of the total funding increase for the coming fiscal year.

The proposed budget also includes an additional $20,000 for a new schools chief. The position has been advertised at an annual salary between $140,000 and $150,000.

On the revenue side, the budget anticipates an increase in grants for the Northampton schools, from $1.32 million last year to $1.4 million in the coming fiscal year, according to the summary. The plan also calls for using $1.63 million in school choice reserve funds in the coming fiscal year, an increase over the $1.46 million used in last year’s budget.

That will leave an estimated $327,000 in available school choice reserve funds, which Zuchowski said is good news for the district.

“We’ve had some concerns in years past about having enough reserves. That meant sitting on pins and needles all year, hoping that nothing bad happened,” he said at last week’s meeting. “It’s good to see some of that money being left in the pot. This budget is a breath of fresh air.”

While he agreed that the budget picture for the coming fiscal year appears positive, subcommittee member Howard Moore said he remains concerned about the future.

He said costs are rising faster than the 2½ percent property tax increase allowed under state law.

“We’re not seeing any extraordinary new ventures,” said Moore. “My questions are about the long term.”

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