Area tour with senator-elect touches on homelessness, food insecurity, education and more

  • Mary Cowhey of the Jackson Street School in Northampton speaks an education themed meeting at Greenfield Community College on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • State Sen.-elect Jo Comerford listens at an education-themed meeting of officials at Greenfield Community College on Tuesday.  STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • MA Senate President Karen Spilka speaks at an education themed meeting of officials at Greenfield Community College on Tuesday. John Provost is on the left. December 11, 2018 Recorder Staff/PAUL FRANZ—Paul Franz

  • Massachusetts Senate President Karen Spilka and state Senator-elect Jo Comerford listen to education officials concerns at a meeting at Greenfield Community College on Tuesday.  STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Michael Sullivan, left, of the Gill Montague School District speaks at an education themed meeting of officials at Greenfield Community College on Tuesday.  STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernandez speaks at Tuesday’s meeting with Sen.-elect Jo Comerford and Senate President Karen Spilka at GCC. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Greenfield School District Superintendent Jordana Harper speaks as Massachusetts Senator-elect Jo Comerford listens at an education themed meeting of officials at Greenfield Community College on Tuesday. John Provost is on the left.  STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 12/12/2018 6:09:39 AM

Senator-elect Jo Comerford began working to get the Legislature to address inequality in providing education, health care, human services and job opportunities, even though, as Senate President Karen Spilka said Tuesday, “she hasn’t been sworn in yet, but she really has been rolling up her sleeves, and continuing to dive into these meaty issues because this is what her passion is.”

Spilka was invited by the recently elected state senator to visit Greenfield Community College, as well as the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and the Northampton Community Arts Trust, for discussions aimed at addressing inequality and “create lasting opportunity for all.”

Each of the three venues included an opportunity for the Ashland Democrat, who succeeds Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst as Senate president, to hear from local officials — including Community Action, Maureen Mullaney of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, Greenfield School Superintendent Jordana Harper, Claire Change of the Greenfield Solar Store and others — on ways to address homelessness, food insecurity, and inequality in accessing quality public education, housing, transportation and other services.

“The first goal was to make sure the Senate president heard us,” said Comerford, a Northampton Democrat elected as a write-in candidate to serve the Hampshire-Franklin-Worcester District, “to help our communities thrive, and that there should be opportunity for all, not a two-tiered system here, which is what we unfortunately have. I wanted her to hear that from us, from the people at the center of this.”

Speaking at the Hatfield food bank, Spilka told those who gathered that she “gets that Western Massachusetts needs its fair share.”

“That’s imperative for us to hear her say,” Comerford said. “(Spilka) was able to hear that we have a stealth food delivery system, that we make up in investment through collaboration, coordination, strategic planning. We stretch every state dollar to its very fullest. And, she was able to hear the disparity in funding and need.”

At the GCC session, attended by Franklin County’s three House delegation members, as well as superintendents from Greenfield and Gill-Montague public schools and GCC President Yves Salomon-Fernandez, Spilka heard from 22-year veteran teacher Mary Cowhey from Northampton’s Jackson Street Elementary School, saying, “We teach every single child who comes to us in our public school, and we do it damn well. The realty is that for decades we have been asked to do this work on the cheap, and we want all of you to know we can’t do it on the cheap. We need to fully fund our public schools. The need is desperate, it’s immediate, it cannot wait.”

The Senate passed legislation to fix the school funding formula, Cowhey said, adding there’s a need to “push” the House to do likewise. “We absolutely must fix the foundation formula to fully fund our public schools.”

Harper pointed to the dedication of teachers to help every child, regardless of social difficulties they often bring, with those teachers dipping into their own pockets, staying late or shortchanging their own lives.

“We do it ‘at the expense of’ and ‘in spite of,’ and I’d like to do it ‘with the support of’ and in the best possible way,” said Harper.

Instead of talking about discussing how to spend for resources, she added, “It’s surprisingly common how often we’re talking about how to support students from trauma, how to help a child who has food insecurity, how to support families who have transient or no housing, how to help support a child whose family is suffering from addiction,” and money spent on systems to ensure student safety, rather than learning.

Gill-Montague Superintendent Michael Sullivan told the group that while the state provides less than $39,000 of the more than $97,000 average foundation budget growth each year, average expenses rise by $275,570, based on figures from 2011 to 2017.

Despite growing state assistance, “We still can’t keep up,” said Sullivan, who’s seen 10 percent of the district’s staff laid off since becoming superintendent. “There’s all kinds of programs we don’t have, particularly supporting struggling students, and we don’t have positions that help teachers improve their craft.”

Sullivan said Gill-Montague, like many districts around the region, has to compete with charter schools and the Franklin County Technical School, so “the market for education is segmenting, because that’s the way you’ve set it up, and he encouraged having a “low-enrollment adjustment factor” included as the Legislature looks at revising the education funding formula.

Northampton School Superintendent John Provost, echoing many of the same concerns voiced by the other educators, added that as the state moves toward revising its education funding formula.

“My fear … is that we can shift into an even higher efficiency model. When I think of what ed reform was meant to do, it was to maximize student potential, rather than maximize efficiency. We’re all very familiar with the factory model of education,” he said. “When resources get tight, it’s what we default to because it’s a more efficient model of education. But it’s not what our students need. I don’t think anyone at this table wants to educate our students by moving them from box to box to box in large groups within our schools. … I think we need Education 2.0 to prepare students for jobs that don’t even exist.”

GCC’s Salomon-Fernandez called on Spilka to think about ways the state can become more forward-thinking in how it awards grants to encourage innovation.

“We have to be more risk-taking, forward-thinking, and be willing to say, ‘Sure, you can pilot this program for fewer students in an area like Greenfield, and that’s OK. So we’d like to see a shift in thinking at the state level.”

Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz responded to Spilka’s comment about balancing the funding needs of the state, by pointing out that failure to fully fund education leaves it any shortfall paid for by regressive property tax. That left Comerford to say she’s certain the region will voice that argument loud and clear when discussion on eduction funding resumes on Beacon Hill.


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