Strong turnout at education funding forum in Orange

  • Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, speaks at a community forum at Ralph C. Mahar Regional School on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

Staff Writer
Published: 1/7/2019 11:14:44 PM

ORANGE — In a high-ceiling room where students are encouraged every day to think and learn, about 135 adults were told Monday to use their imaginations.

Imagine a state in which Orange and Athol could afford to spend money on education the way Wellesley or Lincoln does, imagine class sizes of 16, imagine all school children getting an hour of library time each week, imagine classrooms that are not rushed.

These dreams, and others like them, were the focus of a community forum the Massachusetts Teachers Association co-sponsored with the Athol Teachers and Orange Elementary Teachers associations to discuss public education funding. MTA officials and concerned citizens spoke in the Ralph C. Mahar Regional High School library in Orange to voice their support for Fund Our Future, an MTA initiative to restore to Massachusetts public schools the 10-figure sum the teachers associations believe are owed. According to the MTA, the 2015 Foundation Budget Review Commission found public school funding in the state is $1 billion short of where it should be.

MTA President Merrie Najimy said the stakes are high to allocate adequate funding for public schools because there is a need “to stabilize the very foundation upon which our students learn.”

Najimy was joined by MTA Vice President Max Page, MTA Field Representative Maryelen Calderwood, state Rep. Susannah Whipps (I-Athol) and state Sens. Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), Jo Comerford (D-Northampton) and Natalie Blais (D-Sunderland). To conclude the forum, the legislators were asked if they would co-sponsor Fund Our Future legislation, which aims to increase education funding by at least $1 billion and to improve school infrastructure and transportation. Gobi, the most senior member of the delegation, took the microphone to caution that since she joined the state Legislature in 2001 no bill has been signed by a governor and had identical language to when it was introduced. She said legislators may be hesitant to co-sponsor a bill because its language could greatly change. Whipps echoed that sentiment and said she will wait to sponsor a bill, though she fully supports the Fund Our Future.

Najimy said she understands that dilemma but stressed that “this is both a sprint and a marathon,” saying there are many people who have missed out on a fully funded education and there are many in danger of that happening to them.

Michael Magee, who said he is a retired educator who used to teach at Mahar, said Orange Elementary Schools can afford only $13,300 per pupil and Athol can afford only $14,059, whereas Weston affords $24,500. He said this type of inequality can be overcome with a state graduated income tax.

Page, the vice president of MTA, said state voters may in the future have a chance to vote on a graduated income tax on people making more than $1 million per year, in order to better fund public schools and public transportation.

Page also said all state legislators should support Fund Our Future and anyone who doesn’t should get a “healthy dose of shaming.”

Athol Selectboard member Rebecca Bialecki said there has recently been investment in her town’s schools, but they are still “behind the 8-ball every day.” She said students today have more social and emotional needs than students of yesteryear and smaller class sizes are necessary for more individualized attention.

Retired teacher Doug Selwyn said it is ironic that the state is shortchanging its school and still requiring them to take standardized tests.

“We should say no to taking the MCAS” if funding is not heavily increased, he said. “Fund us, or no test.”

Athol Town Manager Shaun Suhoski, who said he was an adjunct faculty member at Mount Wachusett Community College for 10 years and his father was a public school teacher for 25 years, said public schools “are the single best economic development tool.”

“They are,” he said to applause.

Reach Domenic Poli at: dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.


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