Greenfield City Council restores $1.18M to school budget


Staff Writer

Published: 05-21-2023 1:55 PM

GREENFIELD — After eight hours of combing through the mayor’s proposed fiscal year 2024 budget — and debating certain line item reductions for almost an hour at a time — City Council’s vote to add nearly $1.18 million back into the School Department budget was met with applause from teachers and community members on Thursday night.

Overall, councilors who gathered at the John Zon Community Center voted to support a nearly $61.63 million operating budget for FY24.

“This is a very big deal,” said Precinct 1 Councilor Katherine Golub. “Our schools and our children have been underfunded chronically. In our culture, we think of movements being led by one individual, but that is not how it works. ... If you hadn’t come to multiple meetings, we wouldn’t have been moved in the way we have been to do this.”

Golub was speaking to the faculty and staff members of Greenfield’s public schools, who filled the chairs of the John Zon Community Center two consecutive nights this week, eagerly awaiting City Council’s deliberation on the proposed budget for the Greenfield School Department.

“I cannot even tell you how many times I have sat here in front of you on the verge of tears because I don’t feel respected for all the work I do here in this town,” Rachel Cronen-Townsend, a teacher at Greenfield Middle School, told councilors on Wednesday, hours after dozens of teachers gathered on the Greenfield Common to protest the mayor’s proposed $1.5 million cut to the proposed school budget. “I am sick and tired of begging you to take care of my people.”

Last month, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner submitted a $61.6 million budget proposal for FY24, representing a 6.5% increase over the current budget of $57.9 million. Included in that budget was a $1.5 million cut to Superintendent Christine DeBarge’s proposed $23.15 million school budget, reducing the School Department’s requested increase over the current fiscal year’s numbers from 10.35% to 3%.

At the time, Wedegartner noted her requested FY24 budget represents an overall reduction of $2.7 million compared to department requests.

The nearly $1.18 million addition to the school budget followed cuts made by councilors Thursday night to budget lines for short-term debt service payments, employee health insurance and workers’ compensation. These cuts followed about $330,000 in reductions made the previous night to the police and dispatchers’ wages and salaries line items, among other cuts.

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“We all want the same thing — to support school funding,” Wedegartner said in an interview on Friday. “The notion that I and the city don’t support school funding, I do. It’s 58% of our budget when you add in all the indirect costs. … It has to be done within our means. I’m very concerned about the way in which this has been put together.”

As of Friday, Wedegartner said there still remains a question as to whether the city has approved Massachusetts General Law Chapter 34, Section 32, the statue that authorizes City Council to raise the mayor’s proposed education budget. She said the city has received three competing opinions on the matter.

“I do want to reassure our citizens that our city will function and provide the necessary services they rely on even with this very deep cut in the city’s operating budget,” she said.

Health insurance cuts

The most significant among the nearly $1.18 million in cuts made Thursday night was $619,000 to the employee health insurance line.

Though ultimately successful, the proposal was not met without pushback from city officials. Finance Director Diane Schindler, in particular, cautioned councilors against a reduction of that size given the current number of vacancies in city departments.

“If you reduce down by $619,000, you’re only leaving $30,000 in the budget for new hires for new insurance adds,” she said. “At the school, we have five vacancies that the superintendent … would like to fill. At the city side, we have four major department heads … that all have to be filled. The people in these positions [who retired] … take the insurance with them.”

Wedegartner said Friday that an eventual hiring freeze is not out of the question.

Speaking in favor of the $619,000 reduction on Thursday night, Precinct 3 Councilor Virginia “Ginny” DeSorgher argued that historically, the city has budgeted for several hundred thousand dollars more than was ultimately needed in this line by the end of the fiscal year. In FY23, she said, the city was on target to be under budget by $689,000.

Precinct 6 Councilor Sheila Gilmour was also among the councilors to vote in support of the $619,000 reduction.

“Money is somewhat fungible. … We’ve got different places money is able to be pulled from,” she said. “When it comes down to it, if we want our schools to do something other than [Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System] prep, this is what we have to do. … My kids were athletes, musicians and artists. That’s what they care about and that’s what they’re going to remember when they’re my age.”

City Council President Dan Guin, however, countered that the proposed reduction to the employee health insurance line was a “weird way” to accomplish the task of eventually reallocating money to the school budget, given 58% of the health insurance is spent on school employees.

Guin and At-Large Councilor Penny Ricketts ultimately voted against the reduction; all others voted in support, with At-Large Councilor Christine Forgey, the city’s first mayor, recusing herself.

Debt service cuts

A vote to reduce the short-term debt service payment by $200,000 was also highly debated between councilors, with Forgey’s initial amendment to reduce the cut to $50,000 failing to receive a majority vote of support.

“I’m not sure why $50,000 was recommended last year and $550,000 this year, but it seems this short-term borrowing hit at once,” Forgey commented. “If we do not honor our debt, then we lose a bond rating that we trade in the market. For people who do not fully understand bonds, municipal bonds are sold and investors bid on them. Municipal bonds are considered safe risks because cities and towns cannot default.”

At-Large Councilor Michael Terounzo, meanwhile, based his vote on free cash projections and the potential for supplement financial orders. He noted certain costs are paid upfront while others are charged incrementally.

“The only part at this point that would be reckless and irresponsible is if we do not get a supplemental order, just like we did not get any supplemental order for the Police Department last year,” he said, referencing the $425,000 cut to the department’s FY23 budget. “If that doesn’t get to us with this line item or any other line items that are cut for what we’re trying to fund upfront, then the only recklessness and irresponsibility is the lack of financial orders coming to the council.”

In his comments, Terounzo referenced Wedegartner’s recent My Turn in which she wrote about a “trifecta of irresponsibility” at the Ways & Means Committee meeting earlier this month, during which councilors recommended a $200,000 cut to the short-term debt interest payment and a $600,000 cut to the employee health care fund.

Ultimately, councilors voted by majority to support the $200,000 reduction. A vote to reduce the workers’ compensation fund by $25,000 was also supported, bringing the total amount cut Thursday to nearly $1.18 million.

Restoring school funding

Nine votes were required for City Council to support a motion to add the $1.18 million in cuts to the Greenfield School Department budget, according to DeSorgher. The motion was supported unanimously, bringing the total Greenfield schools budget line to nearly $22.79 million, compared to the superintendent’s initial $23.15 million request.

“I believe there was an overwhelming response from the community,” DeSorgher said. “The community wants to fund our schools and I believe that was the will of the council as well.”

Councilors also had a first reading Thursday night to appropriate $200,000 from the general stabilization fund and $165,000 from free cash to fund the schools’ FY24 budget. If approved, these funds would further close the gap between allocated funding and DeBarge’s original proposal.

“This is a long-term fight,” Golub said. “This is not just a local issue; this is a state issue, it is a many-tiered issue. In order for us to have the schools we need in the long-term, we will need the consistent engagement of all of us. Thank you so much to all of you and please keep showing up.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.