In the Arena: Expense or investment — How towns vote on school budgets gives insight on their views


Thursday, May 17, 2018

Sometimes, you hear something and it just clicks.
It’s happened to me recently while listening to the candidates for the 1st Franklin District debate education policy.

“I think towns look at educational funding in different ways,” Whately Selectboard member Jonathan Edwards said. “Some view it as an expense, but we should be looking at as investment in our future.”

In those terms, it would seem education is being viewed as an expense in Greenfield, considering what may be about to happen — again — to the city’s school budget.

The Greenfield City Council next week will consider a school budget which is several hundred thousand dollars below what was recommended by the School Committee and Superintendent Jordana Harper. Ordinarily, that might be bigger news, except it’s not a new experience. It is, in fact, the third year in a row that the council will be voting on a school budget which is drastically below what the city’s educational professionals say is the minimum amount needed to operate effectively.

How does this happen? That question is best answered by Greenfield Mayor, and School Committee member, Bill Martin, who is the elected official charged with submitting to the council an operating budget that not only meets the city’s needs, but one it can afford.

So far, it’s been hard to argue with Martin’s cash management track record. While other towns around the western region struggle with balancing their budgets within the confines of Proposition 2½, Greenfield hasn’t been within a sniff of an override almost since the advent of the mayoral charter.

But just because budget-balancing overrides have not been part of the conversation does not mean every call he’s made has been right. And unilaterally slashing a school budget by close to $2 million over three years would seem to fit squarely in the “wrong move” category.

A growing number of parents seem to feel that way, judging from what we’ve been hearing during the public comment section of city council meetings. Similar sentiments have been expressed by school officials, who clearly aren’t happy about spending months crafting a budget, only to have slashed by the mayor before sending it to the council.

Why bother having a School Committee or a budget process at all, if the council never gets a chance to debate and vote on what the educators feel is the amount needed to operate effectively?

This year, the School Committee isn’t going to take it lying down, voting to request that the council add an additional $400,000 to the budget at Wednesday’s budget meeting. And given how they handled Martin’s capital budget, there’s a chance the schools might get it, even though they would still be a couple of hundred thousand off from the originally requested amount.

A change in Gill-Montague

“Change” elections are rarely about one thing — and such is the case in the race for Gill-Montague School Committee.

To say it’s been a year of upheaval in the Gill-Montague District is a massive understatement. Much of that consternation has been pegged around the committee’s decision to remove the Indian as the primary identifier for Turners Falls High School.

That decision, and the committee’s handling of same, has led a number of candidates to jump into the race, among them pro-Indian supporter Chris Pinardi, who says this race is about more than just a logo.

“This is about process more than anything else,” Pinardi said. “Process and communication, and how the current committee handles both.”

Joining Pinardi on the slate is 22-year former committee member Joyce Phillips, who attempted to return to the board when Marge Levenson resigned, but was denied in favor of Mike Langknecht, who is also on the ballot.

“I’m in this to create the best school district possible,” Phillips said. “We have a lot of issues we need to address, between the budget, School Choice, and others, as well as how this committee communicates with the people it serves.”

To put it another way, there is a lot more riding on this than what name appears on the Turners football team’s shirts this fall, something voters in Gill and Montague should keep in mind when they go to the polls Monday.

It’s not a typo

I’ve always thought about running for public office, but it never seemed to be a realistic option, given what I do.

On Monday, that ambition becomes a reality when my name will appear on Montague’s town election ballot under the “Town Moderator” line.

After it was announced that Montague Moderator Ray Godin planned to retire after two-plus decades on the job, Montague Selectman Mike Nelson put out a Facebook post suggesting that I might be a good candidate for the job. After a few conversations, including with the editor of this newspaper, I decided to secure the necessary signatures to get on the ballot, where I am running unopposed.

I hope Montague residents will honor me with their vote Monday, and I promise to do the best job I can if elected.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.