Smith School approves tuition hike

Text NORTHAMPTON — Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School Trustees have approved an $8.44 million budget for the coming fiscal year that raises employee salaries, adds new staff and sports programs and increases tuition for students from out-of-town districts.

The budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 represents less than a 1 percent increase over this year’s $8.38 million spending plan, according to a summary provided by the school.

The plan is based on $6.97 million in total city funding — including the full minimum contribution required by the state. Last year, a dispute erupted between Smith Vocational leaders and Mayor David J. Narkewicz over Northampton’s practice of paying less than the state-required minimum in some years in exchange for funding employee health insurance and capital improvements at the vocational school.

While Narkewicz has said he believes the state formula is unfair to the city, he has agreed to provide the full minimum contribution to Smith Vocational while he works with trustees on a new funding and governance structure for the school. Unlike all other vocational schools in Massachusetts that operate as either their own regional districts or part of a municipal school district, Smith Vocational is an independent high school that receives city funding.

Michael Cahillane, chairman of the Smith Vocational Trustees, said school leaders are happy with both the budget plan and the ongoing conversation with the mayor about restructuring.

“The door is open and the discussion is happening,” Cahillane said. “At some point in the future, I think we will have what I call a separation of church and state.”

The budget the trustees approved April 1 contains a tuition increase of $2,070* per non-resident student, which means annual tuition for students from area school districts attending Smith Vocational will rise from $16,200 to $18,270 in September. Students who live in Northampton are not charged tuition.

The tuition increase, which will generate an additional $723,190 for Smith Vocational, is based on a state-approved rate. The state Department of Education says tuition at most vocational schools increases each year.

In previous years, Smith Vocational Trustees approved tuition increases lower than the level set by the state. But Superintendent Jeffrey Peterson said school leaders decided they need to keep pace with the full increase for the coming year to meet program needs. Tuition revenues account for 71 percent of Smith Vocational’s budget, according to the summary.

“Vocational education is more expensive,” Peterson said. “We have to not only buy machines but also maintain them every year.”

He said the school has reached out to administrators in other area school districts to inform them about the tuition increase for the fall. “We realize it is a big jump,” Peterson said.

Hampshire Regional School Superintendent Craig Jurgensen said under the new rate, his district will pay 13 percent more in tuition for students to attend Smith Vocational in September.

There are 93 students from the Hampshire Regional district who are expected to attend Smith School in the fall.

“We support vocational education in general and specifically recognize the quality programming Smith provides,” Jurgensen said. “This year’s increase, however, will be difficult for towns and therefore, also difficult for all of our schools.”

The $6.97 million in total city funding in the budget for Smith Vocational represents a 9.2 percent increase over last year’s allocation of $6.38 million, according to Northampton Finance Director Susan Wright. That figure includes the city’s per-pupil contribution to the vocational school and additional funding in the form of state Chapter 70 money and employee health insurance coverage.

The vocational school’s budget anticipates a drop in federal and state grants from $365,000 this year to $27,750 in the next fiscal year, according to the summary. The plan anticipates a small increase in Chapter 70 state aid to Smith Vocational, from $879,210 this year to $895,485 in the coming budget year.

The budget allocates 59 percent of revenues for instruction at Smith Vocational, 10 percent for building maintenance and 7 percent for administration, according to the summary.

Other budget highlights for the coming year include:

■ A 2 percent salary increase for employees under collective bargaining agreements.

■ A full-time instructor for a new criminal justice program covering topics such as constitutional law, police work, forensics and public safety.

■ New varsity sports programs in girl’s soccer, boys and girl’s cross country, wrestling and boy’s volleyball. A new football coach will also be hired to replace Peterson, who coached the team in its inaugural year.

■ A new full-time athletic director/co-op coordinator position to oversee sports programs and student work internships for juniors and seniors who have fulfilled academic requirements.

Budgets for the city school Department and Smith Vocational were submitted to the mayor April 15. Narkewicz will present his overall budget plan to the City Council on May 15, with a deadline for final approval by June 30.

*CORRECTED: Figures for the amount of tuition that will be charged and additional revenues generated for Smith Vocational were corrected due to an error in a budget summary supplied by the school.

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