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Pittsfield School Budget Anticipates $1.4M in Cuts
By Jack Guerino, iBerkshires Staff
03:53AM / Thursday, May 14, 2020
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — School administrators on Wednesday outlined one vision of a level-funded budget that could eliminate just under 30 positions.
 
Superintendent Jason McCandless presented this version of a proposed $65,113,700 spending plan for fiscal 2021 budget that has been built with little state aid information. 
 
"I am sorry for this financial desert we are kind of wandering through," McCandless told the School Committee during the virtual meeting. "I feel like Moses in the wilderness in speaking because we know that the news is bad. We just don't know how bad, but this would be a vision of getting us to a final budget number that is level funded."
 
With the COVID-19 pandemic essentially resetting the state budget, both the public schools and the city have little context within which to build their budgets. The only known on the school side is that Pittsfield is no longer expected to get a nearly $2.5 million increase in Chapter 70 education funding.
 
This has prompted the district to move toward a level-funded budget that right off the bat means finding $1.4 million in cuts.
 
McCandless said administrators have tried to approach the cuts as if they were not in a financial crunch. The proposed reductions were made with consideration of class size and information from principals. He said they tried to make cuts where principals felt full-time employees were underutilized 
 
"I know we have to get to a bottom line," he said. "The vision that you see tonight is my vision of how we get there with the least amount of damage to families, kids, not adding to the unemployment rolls, and keeping the programs and schools intact."
 
The draft budget represents the elimination of 14 teaching positions. This breaks down into 11 teachers and three special education teachers. It also means that 10 paraprofessional positions, eight of which are special education positions, may be reduced.
 
Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis said they made cuts that they thought would have the least impact on students, especially at-risk students. He added that many of these reductions can be made through attrition.
 
McCandless added that the bulk of the loss of paraprofessional positions will result in few job losses because many of them are actually empty at the moment.
 
He said no paraprofessionals were eliminated from kindergarten. 
 
Some other reductions include one curriculum position that McCandless said is a grant-funded position. Also one teacher of deportment, one supervisory school adjustment counselor, one custodial position, and one nurse position (but not a school-based nurse).
 
The superintendent said the schools have made some drastic cuts through the years so there were only few places they could make reductions. 
 
School Committee member William Cameron said he was happy important central office positions that kept the schools running were not cut. He feared that if broad administrative cuts were made there would be a drop in quality control and more work would be placed on the teachers.  
 
The proposed budget also includes $551,000 in non-salary expenses. The bulk of this comes from a $400,000 "virtual elimination" of the curriculum line item.
 
The remaining line-item cuts: $50,000 from the cultural competency line; $78,000 from utility accounts; $40,000 from bus diesel fuel; $12,000 from instructional equipment; and $20,000 from library books.
 
Assistant Superintendent for Business & Finance Kristen Behnke said this budget is likely to change quite a bit over the summer and McCandless said even if they were to vote on it Wednesday it would likely change multiple times before the first day of school.
 
School Committee member Alison McGee did have concerns about the reductions particularly since students are now using remote learning. When they return to regular school, the district needed to be ready to make up for lost learning and she didn't want the district to be weakened in such a critical time. 
 
"There will be regression and there will be gaps for students that are even high-performing students," she said. "Often one of the best ways to address that is to intensify curriculum."
 
McCandless agreed and welcomed more input from the School Committee.
 
"I know we have to get to a number and I know the number has to resonate in the end with you and the City Council," he said. "This is one vision of how we get there and we need your feedback."
 
Mayor Linda Tyer gave some information from the city's side and said the current draft of the municipal budget is balanced and includes a 15 percent reduction in state aid.
 
She said that after recent communications with state Sen. Adam Hinds, she feels there may be more significant cuts in state aid. The Legislature is currently drafting a new budget to take into account significant anticipated reductions in revenue.
 
"I think it will be a couple more weeks before we have some information on the specifics of state aid and we are hoping that in the federal relief that is being debated right now there will be specific elements left to state and local governments with as few strings attached as possible," the mayor said.
 
She said the goal is to still pass a budget before the start of the fiscal year on July 1 and as the city learns more though the summer, the budget can change as long as it is amended before the tax rate is set.
 
"So if the news gets worse and we have to make more reductions," Tyer said. "Or if the news is better we can restore some of the cuts we are making."
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