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I Go To City Council Meetings #21

Northampton Public School Teachers reject Mayor Narkewicz’ Budget

A Note

Hello passionate readers of municipal government happenings. Blair, here. Five meetings have taken place since my last update. Though I have attended them, this column focuses on a recent city council meeting in which teachers from the Northampton Association of School Employees gathered en masse in the council chambers to demand the council reject Mayor Narkewicz’ budget which currently, does not include a pay raise for public school teachers. Many more things have happened in the chambers over the last month or so, like the council approving the mayor’s request to spend $950,000 on a new cold storage facility to house winter equipment and more. I’ll catch you up on all that shortly. Thanks for reading.

On April 18, 2019 the Northampton City Council held its eighth meeting of the year. Approximately 125 people attended. Councilor Gina-Louise Sciarra (Ward 4) was not present.

Voting Requirements

During public comment the city clerk reminded residents that they cannot vote in municipal elections unless they fill out the city census.

Teachers Reject the Mayor’s Budget

More than a dozen teachers spoke during public comment, all of whom urged the council to reject the Mayor’s budget unless it includes a raise for public school teachers. In an effort to make clear the direness of the situation, many shared their stories of the economic hardship that comes along with being a public school teacher in Northampton and their disappointment with the city and the Mayor for failing to respond to their needs. Below are summaries of their comments.

Andrea Eggito, who teaches at the Ryan Road Elementary School, questioned why the School Committee response to the union’s requests was so delayed. She told the council, “Reject this budget.” She noted that 80% of award winning Northampton teachers have left the district due to insufficient pay.

Paula Regano, an Education Support Professional (ESP) at Northampton High School told the council that she was there representing 100 ESPs in the district. “We are physically and emotionally drained,” she explained, noting that several of her fellow ESPs work 2 and 3 jobs, several of whom work at Stop & Shop. She called on Narkewicz to solve the problem recalling his catchphrase, “Pot for potholes,” and asked why potholes can get fixed but teachers can’t get raises.

Marianne Lockwood, who has been a special education teacher for six years at Northampton High School, reminded the council that in 2015 they voted to raise their own stipends, doubling their yearly pay from $5,000 to $9,000. She explained that at the time Council President Jessie Adams justified the increase to ensure the council positions attracted qualified candidates. She asked that the council use the same rationale to reject the Mayor’s budget and to raise teachers’ pay. “I ask you for a happy ending to our story. How will this look in light of your own recent decisions?”

Alex Jarret, who just announced that he is running for the Ward 5 council seat currently held by realtor David Murphy, shared a story about his friend who can’t afford the pay decrease that it would take to teach in Northampton. He noted the complications caused by a decrease in state funding. “We are being pitted against each other.” (He went on to spread the news that Downtown Sounds has converted into a worker-owner cooperative and encouraged baby boomers who are retiring to consider selling their businesses to their employees.)

Susan Voss, an elected member of School Committee, who clarified that she was representing herself, not the committee stated, “I am convinced that we must commit ourselves to funding our teachers.” She went on to ask a series of questions that have yet to be answered,” Can more money come out of city budget? Do we need a review of what Northampton can afford? Can we move money in the Capital Improvement Plan? What are willing to do? If there is simply not enough money to pay our educators appropriate and say that nothing else is possible.”

Pamela Schwartz, the former Ward 4 Councilor, told the council, “We need to raise teacher pay period.” She announced three upcoming town halls in which the public can attend ask questions about the Mayor’s budget. She gave an example of a question that she doesn’t know the answer to, “What are we doing with the pot money?”

Janice Toddy, a 36 year Northampton resident and a teacher at Jackson Street Elementary School asked, “How am I1 going to take care of myself when I get older?” She noted that the majority of teachers identify as women and because of that, “We are told to be quiet.” She also spoke on class backgrounds saying, “People who make less money often get told that they are not allowed to speak out. But did the Mayor take furlough with us? We have the backbone as a union, we don’t have the stomach anymore to stand this financial situation.”

Suzanne Strauss told the council, “I am outraged. I find our salaries outrageously low.” She shared her frustration with the City’s inaction, “The insensitivity of the people in power to exercise their right is very disheartening. What we are asking for gets us to the low end of our state average.” She went on to give an account of what she did with the paycheck she received that day, “I was paid today. After paying my excise tax, phone, home and car insurance, I have $300 over next two weeks to support my family of five. And this is after 28 years of teaching. My spouse’s work dried up. Every month we dig into savings. My raise buys nothing. I have had a net loss in pay every year since 1998. Over the course of 30 years, that is pushing a million dollars. People in our community are fired up and people in our union are ready for civil disobedience.”

Suzanne Stillenger who runs a preschool in Northampton told the council, “I value public school. My tax dollars may not be supporting my values. As a resident, teacher pay reflects my values. But what we pay our teachers shows that we do not value teachers and children in our community.”

Mary Calle, a teacher at Jackson Street School for 22 years, reminded the council that  Northampton is a union town. “Many teachers stood outside with Stop & Shop workers as people honked support and not a single person gave us the finger.” She shared, “The City has always said there was no money, for 22 years! We are seeing increased streams of revenue we don’t know where it is going but we know it is not going to the school system.” She told the Council that she would not accept a pay raise if it was coming out of other school staff pay,  “Custodial workers make one cent above minimum wage. We are not going to accept the idea that you gotta take it from custodial and clerical.”

Anne Fine, a nurse, noted that like teachers, our society thinks that women must care for most vulnerable in society and get paid very little to do so.

Kira H, a school psychologist who lives in Northampton, told the council, “We sacrifice our time and money for students. Stop relying on educators to self-sacrifice.” She went on to share the imbalance in teacher raises compared with the police and fire departments.”The NPD make less than $34 than the state average yearly. Teachers make $17,000 less per year than the state average yearly.” She also reminded the council that 8 of 10 Grinspoon winners (an award for excellent teaching) in the district have left.

Sheralyn, a senior at Northampton High School, took to the podium and pointed out, “Sitting in this room I see my kindergarten teacher and some teachers I have this year. When I go into their rooms I could get any amount of support for them. They are struggling because they aren’t getting wages they deserve. Give them support so they can support students like me.”

One speaker responded to Council President O’Donnell’s repeated requests that the public remain silent in the chambers. “I am outraged that these educators are asked to be silent everyday about more than their salaries, but also about what valued education looks like. We need to keep raising our voices because we have to be heard. It is up to our leaders and our Mayor to resolve this. Don’t ask us to be polite.”

One teacher, a Grinspoon winner, informed the council, “I have not had a raise in ten years. I make less money than I did eight years ago.” She told them she was no longer interested in asking for a raise, but demanding one. “I am looking up striking laws. How can we shut these schools down.” She noted that this was a change for her. “I sided with the City for years, gave days to the city. I worked furlough days for free. I am personally done with that so I am asking you all of you to figure it out. Ask the mayor to add money that is needed so that our union does not have to do civil disobedience, because we will.”

Another teacher, who teaches at JFK Middle School, spoke about student trauma, something that she has lived through herself. “ Not alot of people have talked about student trauma. I went to college and paved my way as a first generation student. I couch surfed on family members’ couches, living in emotionally abusive situations for four years while I got my teachers license. I am just one of many students whose backgrounds are like that.” She noted the injustice of her salary, “In any other job other than public service, when your job gets harder, when you are given more duties, when you are given more things to do, you get more money. You are paid commensurate to your level of work and I work 60 hours a week at this job and I making the same amount of money I made my second year of teaching.”

More teachers spoke and The Shoestring will update their comments as soon as the video of the latest council meeting is up on NCTV (Anyone else notice the delay in NCTV’s release of council meeting videos?)

Councilor O’Donnell repeatedly requests silence during public comment

Throughout public comment, Council President Ryan O’Donnell repeatedly requested that people in the chamber not applaud or show disapproval after people spoke at the podium. He explained that this request was both intended to make public comment go more efficiently and implied that it upheld “civility,” asking people in the chambers to imagine if people who disagreed with them were applauding or showing disapproval. Perhaps he mistook the room full of teachers for downtown business owners who repeatedly and privately (through emails with councilors) expressed that they were intimidated by community members (patrons of their businesses) who displayed human emotion in the chambers when arguing against Chief Kasper’s intention of putting 10 high definition 24/7 police surveillance cameras along Main St. Many teachers in the room showed expressions of disapproval when O’Donnell requested silence and some responded when they spoke at the podium reminding O’Donnell and the council that women and poorer people are often asked to be quiet. It should be noted that last year directly following eight months of unprecedented public attendance in the chambers in response to Kasper’s notion to put surveillance cameras on Main St, a rule sponsored by Councilor Sciarra, Councilor Nash, and Councilor Bidwell, which would have banned public shows of approval and disapproval in the chambers was voted down. (Possibly because it violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution )

Pesticide Select Committee Delayed to allow for more Applicants

The council voted in favor of amendments that would allow more time for those interested to apply to be on the Select Committee on Pesticide Reduction.

Third Quarter Financial Report

According to the city’s Finance Director, revenues at end of third quarter are where they were last year.

Leeds School Parking Lot

The Council approved $100,000 to be allotted to improving the Leeds School parking lot.

City Solicitor Amends Language in Short Term Rental Legislation

The City Solicitor amended language to the the City’s Short-Term Rental Community Impact Fee. The amendments further specified the when the fees would begin and the fact that the short term rental space includes spaces that are also used as the owners’ primary residence.

Narkewicz acknowledged that he has received questions about how the city would use the fees it collects which will go toward affordable housing. He said he is in communication with the City’s Housing Partnership and will be asking them to create a process to assess spending possibilities.  

Scooters May Appear

City Planner Wayne Fiden informed the council about an ordinance that would help update current ordinances to prepare for possible new modes of transportation in the city, specifically scooters. Fiden shared, “Companies may be dropping scooters off and we want to make sure we have a public way to manage that. It is not meant to protect one particular program. A vendor would have to provide services to across the city rather than cherry pick one neighborhood or another.” The council voted yes on this ordinance in confidence that some of their questions would be answered during the second reading.

Blair Gimma is a co-editor of The Shoestring. They are alive in Massachusetts.

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