|Pittsfield Schools Propose $61.6 Million Fiscal 2019 Budget|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:57AM / Thursday, March 29, 2018
|The School Committee is presented the line budget on Wednesday.|
Superintendent Jason McCandless, Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis, and Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Kristen Behnke presented the proposed $61.6 million budget.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee has put forth a $61,671,338 proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
The request is a 1.6 percent more than this year's budget for a total increase of $985,000.
Superintendent Jason McCandless said the funding increases achieve three goals: covers contractual obligations relating to salary increases, bolsters the system's therapeutic classrooms, and restores paraprofessionals to the kindergarten classrooms — the last of which was part of some 60 staff positions the department cut last year and which McCandless is now saying was a mistake.
That increase is, however, coupled with an anticipated increase in state funding for education of $1.1 million. Essentially, the district is asking for 7/8ths of the increase for those objectives and the rest will go to city coffers to help offset insurance increases.
"I don't think it is too much of an ask," School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said, citing that last year the district had cut its budget by a quarter of a million dollars and laid off workers.
Mayor Linda Tyer was somewhat lukewarm on the request. She said she acknowledges the district's needs but the city is currently in a precarious situation. The city has been flirting with the levy ceiling,
a state law that restricts the amount a municipality can draw from taxes, and there is no override, at least for a few years. She said while the School Department took a cut last year, 16 other departments were either level-funded or reduced.
"This is absolutely a shared responsibility," Tyer said.
She said her job is to put forth a budget to the City Council that finds the right balance to get the city through the difficult times.
"This is going to be another hard year. I'm hoping we can get to a point where we can invest and not divest," Tyer said.
McCandless said he does understand the dilemma. He recognized that while there is an increase in school funding, part of that is intended by the state to offset health insurance costs, which are on the city side of the ledger. He said the full $1.1 million could easily be used just to offset increases in health insurance for school employees. Tyer said the city has a $24 million health insurance bill this year.
"We understand that even coming in with a 1.6 percent increase, which is modest if you compare it to everyone else in Berkshire County, but we are are in a different situation than everybody else in Berkshire County," McCandless said.
He later added that with health insurance, "there is no way that a community can keep up with it unless they are sitting on a gold mine, literally."
McCandless also said 51 percent of the students are classified as "economically disadvantaged," which is another factor in the increased funding from the state.
Those three additional pieces are extremely important to the work the school does, he said. He said the therapeutic program will ultimately help curb what he sees as skyrocketing costs for special education placement in the future. The bolstering of that program, which is detailed here,
is aimed to help those with the most social, emotional, and academic needs.
"We see this $400,000 increase in out-of-district tuitions this year. That is a prelude to what is to come if we don't do this therapeutic work," McCandless said.
Secondly, he said restoring one-on-one paraprofessionals to the kindergarten class is the "moral and ethical" obligation. He said last year's attempt to reduce the number of paraprofessionals in those classes was a failure.
And the contractual increases, which is the majority of the proposed increase, is legally obligated.
"We're going to have to go in here and figure out how to do these," McCandless said.
He said if the proposal is cut further, he'd have to find other places in the budget to reduce in order to accomplish those goals. For example, when School Committee member Joshua Cutler asked about curriculum replacement (McCandless prioritized the mathematics curriculum last year) that hadn't been reduced in this budget, McCandless said that would be a target of a cut.
"We do understand that even that 1.6 may be bigger than the city is capable to be doing," McCandless said.
McCandless said a new science curriculum was piloted and expected to be purchased with that line item. However, the pilot needs more time and a purchase may not be made for that. But, McCandless said there are other curriculum material for civics, social studies, and social-emotional learning in the pipeline and that's where those funds would be used in this upcoming year.
"We have some purchases planned for that," he said.
Multiple School Committee members, however, were adamant that the budget should not be reduced. Those members said the school budget has not been adequately funded in years and it can't accept another cut.
"We have to make our children a priority," School Committee member Cynthia Taylor said, adding that many of the children in the city are coming from broken homes with families dealing with addiction issues and sexual abuse.
"I feel like kids are more important than potholes. To me, it is far more important that we fund education adequately."
She continued to say the state continues to require the school districts to do more. She said Pittsfield spends less than every other school district when it comes to administration, is the third lowest in per pupil expenditure, and at the same time provides more advanced placement courses and special education programs than elsewhere.
"We get a real bang for our buck," Taylor said. "I think this budget is very carefully crafted, keeping kids first."
School Committee member Dennis Powell said the city has been "kicking the can down the road" for years when it comes to school budgets. That's led to losing some of the best teachers and doing a disadvantage to the students. He said the education of the city's youth should be the top priority.
Assistant Superintendent of Business and Finance Kristen Behnke said 84 percent of the proposed budget is directed toward staff salaries.
"The vast majority of our funds is in people, in personnel," she said.
There are some other increases to the budget, which are offset by reductions to other lines. Some of those increases include the city now budgeting for two paraprofessionals for kindergarten, which were funded by a state earmark in this current budget, to the tune of $47,120. That is coupled with a $325,000 increase to restore all 11 kindergarten paraprofessionals who were cut last year.
The therapeutic program will need a director, adding one administrator. Out-of-district special education tuition is expecting to rise. The district is looking to launch a new initiative for restorative justice in all of the schools and is asking for in-service training on that program at a cost of $50,000.
"This is multiyear work. We anticipate this to be a three to four-year project because of the depth of it," McCandless said.
Bus maintenance is increasing, athletics costs are increasing, electricity is looked to increase by some $60,000 because the new Taconic High School will be able to and asked to handle more power.
"We have been constrained for many years at the current Taconic because of the electrical load," Behnke said, saying much more technology will be plugged in. "It is not unusual but it is something we need to be aware of."
There are also a number of other areas in the budget that are decreasing to offset much of those increases.
The decreases include saving some $82,000 in special education expenses because a number of teachers have retired and new ones lower on the pay scale were hired. The contractual obligations were also moderated compared to years past because of a number of retirements in other areas of the district as well.
The number of English-language-learners tutors have been reduced and the district eliminated attendance coordinators and shifted that work to others.
The proposal is cutting some $30,000 from bus monitors; some $50,000 from the custodial accounts and is seeing $50,000 decrease in natural gas fuel. The school's lease on Eagle Street has been reduced. And there may be fewer students going to McCann Technical School in North Adams to take programs not currently offered at Taconic — though Behnke said that is not necessarily going to be true.
School Committee member Daniel Elias particularly asked about the need for a new administrator for the therapeutic program. He wondered if the program can go without a director.
"We believe that is actually the key piece," McCandless responded.
He said the building principals have become the directors and that's not always their specialty. They'd be looking for a director with more experience and skills related to mental health, background services, counseling, and social work.