Gwen’s Statement

Photo of school committee in session

Re-elect Gwen Agna

At-Large School Committee

Gwen’s Statement on her Accomplishments and Goals 2023

            I assumed my position on the School Committee on January 1, 2022, as one of two at-large representatives, the other being Aline Davis. At our first meeting, I was elected Vice-Chair, and was appointed to the Budget and Property subcommittee as well as liaison to the Northampton Education Foundation by the Mayor and School Committee Chair, Gina Louise Sciarra.  Subsequently, a subcommittee on Curriculum was created, for which I volunteered.  In addition, as the Vice-Chair, I was and am currently the spokesperson for the Committee as a whole.

            The first six months of my tenure raised a number of challenging issues for the Northampton Public Schools (NPS), including: 

  • Controversy at Northampton High School (NHS) over embedded honors in math.
  • Disclosure of problematic emails by the NHS principal.
  • Continued debate over COVID health and safety protocols.
  • Contract negotiations with the Northampton Association of School Employees (NASE).
  • A looming budget deficit for NPS.
  • Resignations of many of the major administrators in the entire Northampton school system. 

            As a result of these myriad issues, the School Committee held many extra meetings and received a tremendous amount of public input, through emails, phone calls, and during the public comment period of School Committee meetings. All meetings were held on Zoom, due to health and safety protocols. Because we were not meeting in person, I held several outdoor “Office Hour” sessions in public parks, schools, and housing developments, as it was important to me to hear and see my constituents.

            Given my experience as an educator, I have been acutely attuned to the proper role of the School Committee.  The Education Reform Act of 1993 limited the authority of MA School Committees to the following broad categories: Budget, Policies and Hiring and Evaluating the Superintendent. Of course, within those broad categories are aspects of the curriculum, advocacy, public relations, and educational goals for the Committee and for the schools. My observation—in the past as a district administrator and now as a SC member–is that the public at large and sometimes members themselves struggle to understand and/or accept these limits.  It is often referred to as “staying within our lane”, to coin a phrase, an important reminder of what our roles are. Within those parameters, I have continually sought to balance the public and professional interests and concerns for providing a quality education for all children. With that in mind, these are examples of actions I’ve taken during my first term:   

Embedded honors at NHS and the NHS principal (Spring 2022)

            These arguably distinct issues were conflated.  While curricular decisions are appropriately made by school administrations and teachers rather than the School Committee, the Committee is responsible for approving the annual Course of Study catalogue, so the Committee was required to address the listing of mathematics classes—a matter which was under a deadline. In the midst of the controversy over the appropriate listing of those courses, the NHS principal was put on administrative leave following disclosure of some inappropriate emails concerning the mathematics issue (the principal ultimately resigned).   We agreed to table the discussion until the fall of 2023, when there would be more stability in the administrative team. I urged the administration and teachers to make this curricular decision and share their rationale on this topic and in all others in curriculum.

COVID Health and Safety Protocols (Spring 2022)

            As was the case elsewhere, there was controversy about masking and keeping schools open as the pandemic began to ease. When the Superintendent mandated a return to masking during a rise in cases, I volunteered to meet with interested NHS students who were upset about that decision.  My colleague on the Committee, Holly Ghazey, and I met with some 200 students in the NHS football stadium.  The mood was boisterous and chilly.  Following a lengthy discussion, the students did ultimately listen, even if they continued to disagree. Many stayed to chat with us following the meeting.  As we face another fall of possible COVID outbreaks, I hope we can look to our public health professionals for counsel.

NASE Contract Negotiations (Spring 2022)

            I did not serve on the Negotiations Subcommittee, so I had no direct contact or work in this area.  The Committee, however, was kept updated throughout the spring of ’22 and the entire Committee had to vote on the final proposal. One member of the Committee proposed adding $250,000 from the City’s reserve fund to meet NASE’s request for pay increases.  That fund exists to keep the City solvent in the case of emergencies/disasters.  I was one of two members who voted against dipping into the reserve, and my vote generated some hard feelings among the rank and file. 

            This was a difficult decision on my part.  Having spent my career as a teacher, I am appalled by the relatively low pay accorded educators, and I am a long-term supporter of all who work in the Northampton public schools. Furthermore, our school district does not receive adequate funding from the State of Massachusetts: the costs of educating our students far exceeds what we receive in Chapter 70 funding. But drawing from the reserve fund would only be a temporary fix for a chronic problem, and one that might create further problems in other areas should catastrophes occur.  I supported the Fair Share Amendment, passed in November, 2022, which should result in a greater allocation of funds. I also travelled twice to the Statehouse in Boston to lobby our legislators for the Student Opportunity Act, legislation enacted in 2019 to increase funding for districts like ours that have not seen adequate allocations of state dollars in many years.  We are fortunate to have Senator Jo Comerford and State Rep Lindsay Sabadosa fighting for our school district. I see my role as a member of Northampton School Committee as one to advocate in every way for more education funds from our state.

Looming Cuts (2022-2023)

            Being on the Budget and Property Subcommittee, I have been a part of the work with the public school administration on balancing the NPS budget. All of our schools have had to reduce staff and programs because of insufficient funds. Some of this shortfall has been mitigated by the fact that Northampton is experiencing declining enrollment, but that decline in enrollment does not fully offset the shortfall.  We will again face this issue in 2024 and may be faced with returning to the voters to approve a Proposition 2.5 Override.

Resignations (Spring 2022-Fall 2023)

            As noted above, the resignations of the Superintendent of Schools, the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Director of Special Education and Student Services, the Business Manager, the JFK Middle School and Northampton High School principals created a perfect storm, generating high levels of anxiety as each of these individuals were critical to the central administration.  I participated on the search committee for an interim principal, who in turn hired additional personnel for the central office.

            In the winter/spring of 2023, I served as the Vice Chair in the search for a permanent superintendent.   Working with a representative group of stakeholders–teachers, caregivers, paraeducators, community and school committee members—we embarked on an involved process which resulted in the hire of Dr. Portia Bonner as Superintendent.  I am very pleased with Dr. Bonner’s appointment and look forward to working with her this fall and into my 2nd term.

Moving Forward:  Goals for a Second Term

            Although I sat on the other side, as it were, of the School Committee for 29 years, first as Early Childhood/Desegregation and Equity Coordinator and then as the JSS principal, there was and still is a lot to learn. Aside from the MA General Laws, School Committee policies, and Robert Rules, the learning curve I needed to navigate was balancing the various, often competing desires and demands from the stakeholders of NPS. When in doubt about what falls within the School Committee’s purview and what doesn’t, I refer to Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) and their helpful and responsive executive board.

            I look forward to a term in which I can continue to advocate at the state and national level for increased school funding as well as the passage of The Thrive Act, which will eliminate the requirement that all MA high school students pass the MCAS to receive a high school diploma. We are among only six states in the country to have such a state test requirement for graduation. As an educator, I have advocated for eliminating high stakes testing in our schools and moving toward multiple assessments to capture and reflect all students’ learning.

            I will continue to put children first in all my thinking, actions, and advocacy. As an elected official in our community, I represent their interests, first and foremost. To do that, I also must make sure our policies, our budget, and our superintendent do the same. And while keeping students at the forefront, we attend to the needs of caregivers and families and all the educators (faculty and staff) who care for, support, and educate the children. We must be responsive to their concerns and help find answers to their questions or point them in the right direction to find the answers. Based on my understanding of the role as a school committee member and to make my vison and goals real, I will

  • Continue to advocate for and demand additional funding for NPS at the local, state, and federal levels by lobbying.
  • Promote educationally sound assessments for students at both the district and the state level by working for The Thrive Act and a referendum on the ballot if the MTA/NEA is successful in getting it there.
  • Support fair contracts for all the employees, continuing to make NPS a safe, healthy, equitable environment in which to thrive.
  • Guide the superintendent in navigating the district. She was hired because of her experience and qualifications and needs the School Committee’s support and oversight to achieve our goals.
  • LISTEN – to the community of educators, families, and children. As a principal, I sought to be this good listener and to hear children’s voices especially. With good listening and careful consideration of all the issues, we will have schools that meet the needs of all.