up the numbers with Mr. Budget, Joe Misterka
by Edward Shanahan
Mayors and school superintendents come and go, members of the City
Council and School Committee turn over, but one constant remains;
Joe Misterka. He has been massaging numbers and struggles, sometimes
without success, to balance budgets for more than 20 years.
Associate Superintendent of Schools for Finances since 1985 and
financial analyst in the mayor's office before that, Misterka's
world is defined by pie charts, graphs, tables, thick binders of
statistics, overflowing beakers of red and black ink, endless meetings
and a desk carpeted with pink telephone message slips.
Faced with the prospect of having to bring in a school budget that
is reduced by some $1 million for the upcoming fiscal year, Misterka,
53, says: "Right now I don't how it's going to come out."
Other years he said: "you could sort of figure" that in the end
revenue and expenses would be an uneasy match. "This one here, how
are we going to get close. I don't see it."
Yet, in an extended conversation, Misterka refuses to yield to the
feeling of discouragement that is increasingly being expressed by
many in municipal government.
"We do the best we can with the cards we're dealt," he says. "I
think I'm still enthusiastic ... I don't know if I'm more and less
enthusiastic than 10 years ago. I know, I reflect on the job more.
The decisions get harder."
In an interview, Misterka's thoughts - peppered with opinions and
statistics - come in such a rush that it is often difficult to keep
up with this cascade of words, which branch from one subject to
a new one without warning.
A native of Northampton and product of its school system, he moved
away after graduating from UMass but then returned home with his
wife in 1971 and went to work at the VA Hospital.
After serving as the numbers cruncher for Mayor David Musante for
several years, Misterka moved over the School Department to assume
a similar role. With Supt. Bruce Willard's departure, Misterka,
who earns $75,000, will have outlasted four superintendents.
"What I do with each superintendent is we have a conversation. I
explain my interest in working with them on the day-to-day running
of the schools ... I see myself as an employee of the school system
and try to reflect what's best for the school system."
In the conversation, Misterka keeps returning to his commitment
to the notion of public education. "Not to get corny, " he says,
"but I happen to believe public education is important in a democracy,
the only other field as important is public health."
And by implication, he sees increasing threats to the very principle
of public education, from the charter schools, school choice, voucher
systems, and tax cuts.
"I think public schools build a sense of community, on the athletic
field, at school plays, at awards ceremonies," he says. As alternative
school options increase public support for private schooling, he
sees, a "stratification in our society" taking place. "I think there
are lots of people in national politics who are interested in undermining
the public schools," especially what he views as "the abandonment
of urban areas." He also sees some evidence that this shift is based
on racial factors.
The exodus of students to charter schools or the transfer of students
to other communities means the loss of parents as well, he says.
"We need these parents to make us a better system."
Despite his long involvement in city finances, Misterka remains
puzzled by the current crisis. "People move to Northampton and buy
expensive houses, " he says, and then they ask: "Why are things
On personal level, he relates to this. "I've lived in Northampton
most of my life ... taxes on my house went up $800, I can't complain,
I benefit, I have a job ... but how come things are so difficult?"
For someone whose work revolves around the exacting but bloodless
tallying of revenue and expenditures, dollars and cents, projections
and percentages, Misterka's conversation is spiced with old fashioned
cheerfulness and idealism.
When applying for his job in the 1980s, he saw the need for a significant
school building program, which eventually led to renovations of
Leeds School, Bridge Street School, JFK Middle School and finally
the high school expansion and renovation.
"The taxpayers have been very supportive of it, " he says. "When
I walk into those schools, I feel good."
And he pointedly credits Northampton residents "who don't have kids
in the system for supporting the building program, caring about
There are other building needs, he says: an addition to the Ryan
Road School, and renovation of the Jackson Street School, but he
is realistic about those goals.
"People say they need a break from all these overrides and I agree,
" he says.
Asked why the city renovated and expanded the high school rather
than build a new school, Misterka pointed to two factors: the lack
of a viable alternative site and secondly, the affection in the
community for the current art deco structure on Elm Street. "It's
the best public building in Northampton, it's a jewel of a building"
and its location across from Child's Park heightens its appeal.
A new school was projected to cost $32 million, the renovation,
first pegged at $21 million, will cost closer to $27 million. Still,
says, Misterka, a proponent of renovating, "it was the correct decision.
The proof will be when people go into the building, it's a very
But he cautions the city has to maintain its schools better than
it has in the past, when, in order to save money, maintenance was
deferred, capital outlay requests postponed.
Even today, he admits, the budget for maintenance is underfunded.
Exclusive of supplies, utility costs, and salaries, only $104,000
is earmarked for maintenance to six school buildings in contrast
to the $800,000 state guidelines suggest. "We continue to defer
maintenance, " he acknowledges.
In underfunding maintenance, supplies, transportation, the book
budget and other areas, "a lot of our efforts, by design, are to
put our scarce resources into teaching staff and educational programs."
Of the total $19 million-plus school budget, some 83 percent of
the money is for personnel with the school department employing
the full-time equivalent of 471 employees, even after eliminating
six positions this year.
He expects another 12 teachers will take early retirement next year
but those savings will be soaked up by higher health insurance costs.
When he looks at the "dialogue in Boston" about educational funding
he does not see any short or long-term changes for Northampton.
Thus, facing the prospect of reducing spending by as much as $1
million, attrition alone will not work. Layoffs of some personnel
seems inevitable. "I think its going to be people, I'm very concerned.
This corrective action ... we call it a pause, not a freeze, but
a pause ... we're really scrambling."
Yet, as Misterka anticipates the arrival of his fifth boss, he remains
resolute. "We'll struggle to find a way to keep people, to improve
the system and provide the best education we can."
"There's a lot of things I'd rather be doing than cutting budgets,"
he says, "but that's what you have to do."
But this has to be done fairly, he is quick to say. "We don't want
the youngest, best people to leave - yet we can't spend money we
don't have. It's a tightrope we walk."
Too young to retire, Misterka says his interests increasingly are
turning to geology, natural history. and the environment. He spends
more of his free time walking the trails and exploring the Holyoke
"The place is really great," he says with typical Misterka enthusiasm.