Op-Ed: Schools are thriving but challenges remain

By Mayor Donna Holaday

The education of our children is one of the most important priorities of our community and I want you to think back to 2010 and the status of our school district.

We were dealing with devastating budget cuts dating back to 2007 that resulted in the loss of our neighborhood K-4 elementary schools, layoffs of teachers and staff, and the elimination of programs, including world languages at the middle school.

The high school’s accreditation was at risk. Our middle school and especially the elementary school buildings were in need of immediate attention. The Bresnahan, built in the 1950s, could no longer provide the 21st century facility our children deserved. Moldy trailers were being used for classrooms; the technology was antiquated, there were major space, health and safety issues. The situation was no longer acceptable.

We were able to effectively advocate for our school building needs with assistance from Sen. Steven Baddour and Rep. Michael Costello. The Mass. School Building Authority accepted Newburyport into the program with two projects: a new elementary school for pre-K to Grade 3, and renovations to the Nock/Molin School with the state contributing approximately 50 percent of the funding to each project.

Today, thanks to our residents and the great efforts of the concerned parents of Port Pride, we came together as a community to vote for a debt exclusion to support the gap funding for the school projects. We can be very proud of what we accomplished for our children and their education.

We also were very fortunate to finally stabilize leadership in our school district over the past five years with Superintendent Susan Viccaro.

She was instrumental in uniting our school district and creating a meaningful and operational strategic plan to guide our district from our administration to the classroom. My administration has worked diligently to address the structural deficit in the school budget.

Our Chapter 70 school funding from the state is roughly $4 million per year with $2 million allocated to the charter school. This leaves our community with the challenge of providing the additional $28 million needed strictly for operations.

The issue here is the state funding process for charter schools, not our River Valley Charter School. Yet, we rose to the challenge, increasing the budget allocation by 28 percent over the past seven years.

This enabled us to restore teacher and staff positions, maintain small class sizes, and add electives, honors and AP classes at Newburyport High. It also has allowed us to provide a robust professional development program for teachers and staff, advance new curricula, technology, STEM and lab programs, and establish new partnerships with higher education.

Our high school was recently ranked 32 out of the 50 best high schools in the state by the annual Boston magazine survey. Our graduation rate is strong and 99 percent of our teachers are certified in their core academic subject.

MCAS and PARCC assessment data has been above the state average. But the real highlights of our school district are our amazing and dedicated teachers engaging students in Real World competitions, poetry slams, environmental work and stewardship, fundraising for a well in South Sudan, creating artificial hands with a 3-D printer to help those with disabilities, and so much more.

Our schools are thriving but we are facing new transitions with the retirements of Superintendent Viccaro and NHS Principal Mike Parent. We also must continue to implement the fiscal plan to close the structural budget deficit in our schools.

Finally, we must work collaboratively to provide later start times for teens while balancing the other impacts and costs. I believe the mayor has a leadership role to play in education in our city. I have tried to provide strong leadership while working closely with the parents, School Committee, City Council, superintendent, teachers, staff – and our students. We have made great achievements in our schools. Let’s continue this work.

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