Greenfield super makes plea to fund budget for schools

  • Greenfield Superintendent Jordana Harper at a School Committee meeting earlier this year. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2019 10:56:25 PM

GREENFIELD — In a rare emotional plea from Superintendent Jordana Harper, the head of the city’s schools walked through what the mayor’s $1.3 million cuts could look like.

Districtwide there may be $500,000 worth of cuts to bus routes, athletics, supplies, administration.

At the Academy of Early Learning preschool, there may be $100,000 in cuts, including to a principal’s position, instructional assistants, music and technology. Tuition would increase.

At the elementary schools there may be $300,000 in cuts, including letting go of classroom teachers and reducing the arts, music and supplies.

At the middle school there may be $200,000 in cuts including to the music program, band, technology, Spanish, art and instructional assistants.

At the high school there may be $200,000 in cuts including to the culinary program, music, special education staff and Advanced Placement courses.

It may amount to 15 to 20 pink slips handed out to school employees.

“Our budget is people. Many of those people are sitting in the room tonight,” Harper said Thursday night at the John Zon Community Center during a budget meeting of the Greenfield City Council.

“We don’t always have the best pay,” Harper said, “but we have the best people.”

The council’s Ways and Means Committee has been wrestling over a $51.3 million budget presented by Mayor William Martin earlier this month. The budget is already slated to increase taxes, and some councilors have expressed the desire to cut it further.

Thursday night, the four members of Ways and Means present offered an ear to the schools but not a guarantee of funding its requested $20 million budget.

“As difficult and painful it is to even read, it is something that needs to be viewed by all of us in the public, so that we know what the ramifications are of what we choose to do,” Precinct 3 City Councilor Brickett Allis, who is running for mayor, said.

School Committee Chairwoman Adrienne Nunez said her fellow members have spent months trying to trim the budget, but “educating our youth is not a burden; it’s a responsibility.”

“As you can see by some of emotional response today, this is quite devastating,” Nunez said.

“I think we’re all extremely sympathetic to the moral argument you’re presenting. It’s a strong one,” Ways and Means Chairman and Precinct 7 Councilor Otis Wheeler said. “The question before us is pragmatic.”

The mayor has proposed a $18.65 million school budget, which he noted is an increase from this year’s $18.2 million budget; the council added about $450,000 to the school this year, which Martin says has left a shortfall for other town departments.

Increases for health insurance and pension plans, as union contracts increase and Baby Boomers continue to retire in droves, have sent the school’s budget to new heights.

It has left the city’s legislators with questions about whether it can afford to pay for in-school and out-of-school costs at the same time.

Harper said pink slips may be handed out around May 15, based on contractual agreements. The council doesn’t vote on the budget until the end of May.

“We’ll be looking very deep into all of the departments and try to figure out a way to work within it,” Allis said. “I’m hopeful we can find a way to not make it look like the worst case scenario.”

The budget may receive a bailout from the state if it provides additional funding to schools.

It could come in the form of payment for foster children. A report from the state auditor’s office this week looked specifically at Greenfield and the more than $700,000 a year it spends on them.

While it may not be an unfunded mandate to pay for out-of-district foster children, the report said its legislators need to pay for it.

The city will continue to examine pieces of the budget and figure out whether it can afford even more of a tax hike to pay for the schools — at the same time when a new public library is likely going to go to the polls this November during a mayoral election.

“This is a hard conversation. The reality is we’re talking about cuts on either side of this,” Wheeler said. “We’re still talking about cuts to human beings. It’s a really tough discussion.”

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