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Preliminary Pittsfield School Budget Calls For 57 Job Reductions
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
03:58AM / Thursday, March 09, 2017
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The School Committee was presented the preliminary budget on Wednesday night.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The school district is considering reducing staff by 57 employees.
 
Superintendent Jason McCandless presented a preliminary budget to the School Committee on Wednesday night that calls for the sharp reduction in staff. Overall, the budget would still be up by about a half million dollars but the staff reductions counter increased cost for contractual obligations. 
 
"This keeps the central focus on student instruction. This keeps the central focus on student learning and that is really, at the end of the day, what we are here for," McCandless said.
 
The proposal increases the school budget by less than 1 percent that is mostly driven by the city's overall financial shape. The city is nearing its levy ceiling, which limits the amount of revenue coming from property taxes. The way the numbers are shaking out, Mayor Linda Tyer says every department in the city may have to come in at level funding.
 
"Level funding is probably where we are going to land," Tyer said.
 
The school is the largest cost sector with a budget of more than $60 million and hundreds of employees. Level funding for the schools means that reductions need to come from other places to offset increasing costs.
 
McCandless said just to keep up with negotiated contracts each year, the district must increase spending on average $1.25 million. In this upcoming year, that figured is at $1.67 million. 
 
He added that while health insurance isn't in the school budget, the school is responsible for another $3 million increase in that for its employees. There is another $200,000 increase for out-of- district special education place.
 
On the overall scale, in order to keep the existing staff doing the same work in the next fiscal year, the city would need to spend some $5 million more just on education.
 
"We are starting our budget preparations with $5 million of increase, just in the school's contractual obligations," McCandless said. 
 
The city doesn't have that. Previous estimates showed the city would have had around $2.5 million before it hits the tax levy to spend across all city departments — though those numbers fluctuate somewhat. McCandless said it was reported to him that the city is at the ceiling, not just approaching it, as all departments continue budgeting for the next year. 
 
The school administration crafted a budget focused on asking for a less than 1 percent increase, and coming in with a preliminary budget with a .91 percent increase or $547,083. 
 
That budget has one addition to it, though, which is for curriculum materials replacement. McCandless said that is an absolute must to ensure teachers have the tools they need. He said the district has considered curriculum renewal for years as an add-on, funded only if the school was able to, but he feels it shouldn't be treated that way. 
 
"This has to be a sacred cow," McCandless said, and later compared it to the how the district protects $300,000 every year to replace technology. 
 
Otherwise, he said, "this budget is all about protecting our most crucial mission."
 
To find ways to get to the 1 percent or less figure, McCandless presented a budget that reduces staffing by 57.3 employees. Those include six regular education elementary school teachers, 14 regular education paraprofessionals, six middle school teachers, 6.3 regular education high school teachers, two special education teachers, 18 special-education paraprofessionals, one vocational teacher and four employees in the central office.
 
In total, the district is looking to make $1.1 million in reductions to personnel. 
 
Further, the budget reduces both contractual and non-contractual stipends and eliminates three paraprofessional training days. 
 
"We have cut almost every other line item to the bone," McCandless said. 
 
Last year, the threat of pink slips hovered over the budget conversation. The district sent out 154 notices of layoffs in April, putting the staff on edge. That was done at the time because there was uncertainty in the budget and the administration wanted flexibility as to whom to let go if needed.
 
This year, however, the budget process is earlier and McCandless said the slips that go out will be real.
 
McCandless reiterated that he doesn't believe in cutting arts or sports. He believes those programs are a vital part of providing a rich education to the students. Often during difficult budget times, sports and arts are threatened and the community typically rallies to fight the reductions. School Committee member Daniel Elias praised McCandless for not using that tactic and instead presenting an honest budget proposal.
 
"That's usually the hostage," Elias said.
 
Tyer appreciated McCandless' efforts with the budget to get under 1 percent, showing he does "understand the dilemma." She added the proposed electric rate increases will only make the budget challenges worse. She said she met with Finance Director Matthew Kerwood today and was left "speechless" by how the budget numbers are coming in.
 
"We are absolutely on the ropes," Tyer said. 
 
School Committee members were left somewhat speechless themselves after hearing the proposed budget. They didn't weigh in much on the proposed positions or debate the decision to fund curriculum but instead remarked mostly about the difficulty of such a financial time.
 
"It's devastating. These are faces and names of people we know," Elias said. 
 
School Committee member Pamela Farron simply said, "this is just not good."
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