Northampton’s at-large candidates for School Committee discuss budget, MCAS and more at forum

  • School Committee at-large candidates Meg Robbins, left, and Aline Davis. —STAFF PHOTO/ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Published: 11/2/2023 6:00:29 PM
Modified: 11/2/2023 5:59:57 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Elimination of MCAS testing, declining enrollment and the school budget were some of the topics discussed by candidates for the Northampton School Committee’s at-large seats during a forum held Wednesday night at John F. Kennedy Middle School.

The three-way race features incumbents Gwen Agna and Aline Davis running to retain their positions, as well as current Ward 1 committee member Margaret “Meg” Robbins. All three are longtime educators.

Only Robbins and Davis attended the forum, with Agna unable to attend due to an illness.

Both candidates stated that they were in favor of eliminating requirements for MCAS testing as a graduation requirement, which advocates say puts unnecessary emphasis on standardized testing and disadvantages those who come from underprivileged backgrounds.

Robbins said she has opposed MCAS since its inception, saying it caused anxiety in students and drove teachers away from their jobs.

“I’ve worked in schools where kids are parked in front of their computers for three periods, doing math prep,” Robbins said. “I came to our school committee 20 years ago to say we have something coming down the pipe that is not going to be good for our kids, and it’s not going to be good for our schools.”

Davis said that MCAS should be eliminated on the basis that students should be assessed on the whole of their academic performance, not just a single exam.

“I believe it’s such a high stakes for a student to be told they can’t graduate,” Davis said. “A one-time assessment is not the whole picture of who that student is.”

The school budget was also a topic of discussion. The district’s current $37 million budget needed an influx of city emergency funds to avoid significant job cuts, but that money won’t be available next year.

Davis said the city needed to advocate to receive more money from the state, via Chapter 70 funding. Northampton ranks near last in Massachusetts in this funding.

“That’s not a quick fix, but we need to be unrelenting about advocating for Northampton,” she said. “We need to be creative about our budget and really focus on what are our priorities, which of course are the students.”

Robbins said she was planning to bring resolutions to the school committee on the issue of budgeting, and advocated working closer with the council to find sources of funding.

“Our budget reflects our priorities,” she said. “What we spend and how we spend it in an educational budget is a pretty good reflection of what we really care about as a community.”

Candidates also addressed declining enrollment numbers in the school system. According to the school district, the number of students is declining or stagnating for most schools, with total enrollment across the school systems down about 7% since 2014.

Robbins said that she understood parents may choose to enroll their children in charter schools instead, and that the district needed to bring additional programs to their schools to keep kids enrolled.

“We have reduced access to arts, we’ve reduced access to music, our classes are bigger than we really want them to be,” she said. “We also need to think about how we attract people back in terms of creating the neighborhood. That means that our kids all grow up together in the same community and are going to the same sorts of schools.”

Davis said if parents had issues with the Northampton Public Schools, they should stay and try to change things from within, rather than remove their children from the district.

“I feel very strongly that if people leave when things aren’t the way they want them to be, then that’s not how it improves,” she said. “It takes money from regular public schools.”

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.


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