Greenfield educators protest withdrawal of $365K financial orders for schools

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 05-26-2023 7:00 PM

GREENFIELD — Teachers, parents and students filled the Greenfield Common Thursday evening to protest Mayor Roxann Wedegartner’s withdrawal of financial orders totaling $365,000 to supplement the School Department’s fiscal year 2024 budget.

Wedegartner submitted her notice of withdrawal on Monday in an email to City Council President Dan Guin and Vice President Christine Forgey, in which she explained that, because City Council had cut roughly $1.18 million from the FY24 operating budget and reallocated the funds to the School Department in a vote the week before, the schools no longer needed the additional $365,000.

“To say the schools don’t need the money at this time, it makes me speechless,” said Tara Cloutier, a Spanish teacher at Greenfield High School. “We need that funding. … Everything fails in a place where schools aren’t funded.”

“For me to withdraw those orders, I did it so that we could put the money ... back to the two accounts it came from, and it will be there in case we have deficits in health care,” Wedegartner said in a phone interview on Friday. “They did cut [$619,000] in health care.”

In April, 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%.

Between meetings on May 17 and May 18, City Council made nearly $1.18 million in cuts that were reallocated to the Greenfield School Department. The cuts included reductions to short-term debt service payments, employee health insurance and workers’ compensation, among others. Councilors, who ultimately supported the $61.6 million FY24 operating budget, also had a first reading to appropriate $200,000 from the general stabilization fund and $165,000 from free cash to fund the schools’ FY24 budget. However, those two requests, which would have restored the superintendent’s budget request, have been withdrawn.

“After agreeing to do one thing, she changed her mind,” said Beth Diamond, a Newton Elementary School parent who attended the protest, referring to Wedegartner. “The statement was, ‘I don’t care.’ ”

Wedegartner said she submitted those two financial orders “on the outside chance” that city councilors didn’t reach the amount they’d hoped to cut. She didn’t consider it to be a promise.

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“I’m not fully understanding what everyone is so angry about,” Wedegartner said. “Over $1 million was taken from the bottom line of the operating budget from different department heads in order to give it to the schools.”

Thursday’s protest was timed so as to meet Wedegartner as she entered the neighboring Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center for a retirement party for Community and Economic Development Director MJ Adams.

Several School Committee members and city councilors attended the protest on the common, including Precinct 3 Councilor Virginia “Ginny” DeSorgher, who announced her campaign for mayor earlier this year.

The protest was met by one counter-protester, Hugh Connolly, who objected to funding “failing schools.” In an interview, he explained that his two children had been “excluded” from the district due to a policy that limits homeschool students from accessing or participating in certain public school resources or events.

“If nothing else, I’d like a justification,” he said.

As protesters chanted a resounding “fund our schools” – a rally cry that grew in response to Connolly’s counter-protest – a group of students from the Strings for Music program performed in the center of the common. Cloutier said any one of the cuts that may be made if the superintendent’s budget isn’t fully funded – be it athletics, arts or foreign language programs – is “unacceptable.”

“We’re here as a representative of one of the many things Greenfield public schools are going to lose if this money doesn’t get reallocated,” said Julie Carew, director of Strings for Kids. “The biggest loss will be access. There will always be kids who want to play instruments. The kids we miss are the ones we don’t see.”

During a School Committee meeting last month, DeBarge shared with committee members a list of potential cuts to address the then-$1.5 million shortfall, among them was Strings for Kids, the athletic program and Spanish teacher at Greenfield Middle School, and instructional supplies and transportation costs.

“We’re just so exhausted, basically begging for money every day,” said Greenfield Education Association President Ann Valentine.

It was déjà vu, said Judy Bennett, an eighth grade science teacher.

“The chronically underfunded issues that Greenfield schools and schools across the country are facing is disheartening … and scary,” she said. “We wanted an educated society. … Without an education, our community can’t function well.”

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

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