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Newton school officials advocate for proposed override

Newton North High SchoolJohn Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Newton school officials advocated for a proposed Proposition 2½ override that would include $4.5 million to fund additional mental health support and technology for students in the city’s public schools.

If Newton residents vote to pass the override in the March 14 special election, Newton public schools plan to use the money to maintain in-school counseling services across the district and expand the one-to-one device program into elementary and middle classrooms, according to Julie McDonough, the director of communications for Newton Public Schools. The School Committee would decide what specific programs to support with the $4.5 million during school budget meetings this spring, McDonough said.

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Interim Superintendent Kathleen Smith said during an Oct. 20 town hall the override will help Newton Public Schools maintain “strong, challenging and engaging” academic programs. Schools could bring in additional support for students who have encountered learning losses, Smith said, and schools could have some smaller class sizes with “personalized instruction from highly skilled classroom teachers.”

There also would be a focus on “welcoming and inclusive” neighborhood schools with the ability to meet the needs of all its students, Smith said during the town hall, which was held over Zoom.

There also would be increased support for English language learners, athletic teams, fine arts, and clubs, Smith said, helping to prepare students “to go on to become global citizens.”

“When we graduate our students from the public schools, there are high expectations that wherever the student is going, they have that opportunity to achieve,” Smith said.

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller proposed the nearly $9.2 million property tax increase override for the city’s schools, infrastructure, and older residents. There are also two debt exclusions — tax increases that last as long as it takes to pay off the loans — to raise $2.3 million in annual bonding for the Countryside Elementary School project, and $3.5 million for the Franklin Elementary School project.

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Smith said at the meeting that Newton’s secondary schools have a variety of guidance counselors able to support the caseloads, which average about 175 students for each school — about 2.6 percent of the total enrollment of middle and high school students.

“If the Newton voters approve the operating override for the schools, then that would allow us to maintain that ratio,” McDonough said.

If voters approve the override, Smith said, it could provide schools with the support to hire additional guidance counselors, school psychologists, and mental health professionals, which have become more difficult to find.

“You can see that as the world has changed, education has changed as dramatically in the past 10 years,” Smith said. “And these challenges were certainly emerging prior to COVID-19, but they have been amplified and exacerbated by the public health crisis.”

At the town hall, Fuller said the override, which, if passed, would be the third in the city since 2002, is “all about the people.” Seventy-five percent of the funds in the override are for children, she said, who are the “future” of Newton.

“It’s about leaving this community better for the next generation,” the mayor said.

Ayesha Farag, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Newton, said School Committee members advocating for the override get their information from educators who are inside schools every day, so conversations around “budget and needs are informed by those perspectives, and not made in a vacuum.”

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In my work with principals I can tell you, and as a former principal myself, they are very capable advocates for their schools and definitely make the needs of their schools known on behalf of their faculties and their students,” Farag said.

Karen Manning, a parent of kids in Newton Public Schools who was at the meeting, asked the committee if it was soliciting input from specialists in the school.

“There are going to be many opportunities for our principals and their staff to get input into this budget process,” Assistant Superintendent and Chief Financial & Administrative Officer Liam Hurley responsed.

In an interview after the meeting, Manning said she thinks the teachers’ voices can be especially valuable while making decisions about how to address mental health and learning needs.

“I would hope that Newton and NPS would evolve in its thinking to authentically include teacher voices — not administration voices, not School Committee voices in those positions — for the benefit of the entire school system,” Manning said.

Michael Zilles, president of the Newton Teachers Association, said in an email the “NTA supports the override Mayor Fuller has put on the ballot.”

“The NTA also believes that the NPS current budgetary gap is a result of chronic under allocation of funds from the Mayor’s office, and irrespective of the outcome of this override vote, Mayor Fuller needs to increase the allocation to the NPS,” Zilles said.

Fuller said the city’s public school budgets “are a reflection of our values and our views” and what our “residents and students need.”

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Residents can see how they might be affected as property owners, or learn about more events discussing the override, through the city’s website, newtonma.gov, Fuller said.

The override vote will be held in March.