Greenfield schools in OK position, for now

  • Greenfield Superintendent Jordana Harper speaks at a Greenfield School Committee meeting at the John Zon Community Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

  • Greenfield School Committee Chairwoman Adrienne Nunez speaks at a Greenfield School Committee meeting at the John Zon Community Center in Greenfield. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2019 11:41:36 PM
Modified: 5/24/2019 11:41:22 PM

GREENFIELD — Half of the $1.35 million gap between the public schools request and the mayor’s budget was restored this week, which has left school officials expressing gratitude but aware the schools remain in a precarious position, especially in the years to come.

This has also led the Greenfield School Committee to request an audit from the state commissioner of education in regards to how state aid is supposed to be spent locally, according to a letter it submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday, the day of the budget vote.

The roughly $700,000 slashed from other departments and given to the Greenfield Public Schools is “tremendously helpful in staving off” the 20-plus jobs that were on the chopping block and softening the blow to the arts and music programs, Superintendent Jordana Harper said.

“Unfortunately, this leaves the School Department with over $700,000 still left to account for, and does not yet create a sustainable path forward to fund our schools,” Harper said in an emailed statement Friday.

The Greenfield School Committee, along with its plans to request the state to conduct an audit of its bylaws on education funding, will review its budget at a special meeting this Wednesday.

The schools ended up with about $19.3 million in this year’s $51.3 million budget.

Mayor William Martin had proposed an $18.625 million school budget. That was a $450,000 increase from the year prior. The council later added money to the schools budget, which brought the total to $18.575 million.

The mayor’s budget did not fund the schools to meet its contractual increases in salaries and insurance.

The Greenfield School Committee, led by Chair Adrienne Nunez, requested a $20 million budget, identical to what Harper originally proposed.

“I’m feeling some real appreciation for our councilors,” Nunez said Friday. “I know their job is very difficult. What I heard at the meeting was a really strong consensus and interest in supporting the Greenfield Public Schools. I watched them do that.”

An outpouring of support to fully fund the public schools came from community members, teachers and principals in the six weeks between the mayor’s proposal and the Greenfield City Council’s budget vote.

Some parents threatened to leave the school district if it received cuts to the arts.

“I am so grateful to the parents, students, teachers, and community members that made it clear to the council that the schools are a top priority, and that educating our students is a smart investment for our city,” Harper said.

Part of the debate around the budget was on differences of opinion on how to spend Chapter 70 state school aid. This year the Greenfield Public Schools received a windfall of money, $1.3 million. Typically the state does not significantly increase the amount of aid.

The reason for the increase, union activists say, was that they successfully lobbied legislators for more education funding, including unfunded mandates like transportation.

Precinct 5 City Councilor Tim Dolan, a union activist himself, pushed for using the additional Chapter 70 funding to allow the schools to elevate its budget more than normal.

Martin, who is also on the School Committee, instead saw the additional funding as a way to ease the burden of the budget. He said he didn’t see it as an excuse to spend more than normal because there is no guarantee that the money would be there the following year, setting up questionable municipal accounting practices as he sees it.

“It is challenging to operate schools that attract and retain the best students and teachers with the best educational outcomes, given the uncertainty of receiving funding, even when we receive it from the state,” Harper said.

The School Committee’s letter to Jeffrey Riley, the state’s commissioner of education, asks him to look into whether Chapter 70 money is suppose to go to indirect or direct costs to the schools — or in other words, should the state aid go to the classrooms.

The letter says the current agreement on funding structure between the city and the schools, dating back to 2002, is “badly outdated.” The committee seeks to see what future funds should go to the classrooms and what can go to growing expenses like health insurance and retirement.

For this year, ultimately what came down to how much the council approved for the public schools was based on who was at the table for the vote.

The 13-member council was one member short to start because of the resignation of Precinct 9 Councilor Dan Leonovich, who left to focus on the adoption of a child with his family. That left the council needing eight votes to approve additional money for the schools, which would further raise taxes.

The calculus changed when two councilors could not make Wednesday’s meeting because of illness. Precinct 8 Councilor Doug Mayo and Vice President Penny Ricketts were absent and both have advocated for funding the schools.

With 10 councilors making the decisions on the $51.3 million budget, seven votes was now needed to approve the tax raises. Council President Karen “Rudy” Renaud and At-Large Councilor Rudy Renaud both acknowledged openly during the meeting that with the councilors at hand, they did not have the votes to further hike taxes.

Instead, the council resorted to cutting from departments, with some loose promises of giving back to them later in the year. With $677,080 in cuts to other departments, the schools were elevated to $19.3 million.

“We didn’t necessarily want to take away from other departments in order to provide for the schools,” Nunez said. “This felt like the only way that they could provide additional funding to the schools given the individuals present and voting.”

Both Martin and Harper have said the current model of funding the schools is not necessarily the best approach and can lead to “Band-Aid” efforts that don’t remedy the problem at hand.

“Our current means for funding public schools is not working and there is a common understanding that is the case,” Nunez said.

She hopes that the next mayor and City Council, of which half of its members are up for election this November, will support the schools, even if that means raising taxes.

“Locally, I do think it will ultimately come down to what will our new leadership be wanting to invest in,” Nunez said. “For me, that’s what I’m looking for in any conversation with our mayoral candidates. Do they want to invest in our public schools and can they stand behind that?”

Broader, long-term solutions to the education formula still need to be explored, she said.

“Regionalization should be a part of the conversation, but it’s not necessarily the solution,” Nunez said. “What we might be looking for is something different and new. We still need to find solutions to funding.”

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