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Pittsfield School Committee Accepts Fiscal 2021 Budget
By Jack Guerino, iBerkshires Staff
04:03AM / Friday, May 22, 2020
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The School Committee has accepted a fiscal 2021 budget that is level funded  at $65,113,700 but fears further reductions in Chapter 70 could cause more cuts.
The School Committee saw a more detailed budget on Wednesday and Superintendent Jason McCandless noted that further reductions in state education funding could be a reality.
"Really the only option is to roll up our sleeves and join with ... those who care about kids," he said. "A cut to Chapter 70 of that magnitude is simply not acceptable and the city and the commonwealth will not stand for it." 
With COVID-19 all but resetting the state budget, Pittsfield Public Schools administrators have been tasked with building a budget with little information on Chapter 70 funds other than knowing they won't have nearly as much money as anticipated. Pittsfield had been in line for a $2.5 million increase in Chapter 70. 
So while the district waits for more information, they have put forth a level-funded budget of $65,113,700 that translates to about $1.4 million in cuts. This could eliminate almost 30 positions.
McCandless said believes that there is a possibility that Chapter 70 funds may not be level. After sitting in on some meetings with the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, he said there are some who think that Chapter 70 could be reduced up to 15 percent.
In terms of numbers, McCandless said a 10 percent decrease would translate to a funding decrease of $4,768,606
"To consider a reduction of that magnitude is simply a place where I can't let my heart go and I really struggle to let my head go," he said. "This is a staggering amount of money and it would really increase not five times, but six or seven times the number of cuts that we are discussing here tonight."
For this reason more (24) reduction in force notices will sent out even though, currently, the hope is to keep actual job loss to a minimum. 
Further reductions in staff would "skyrocket" unemployment costs placing more pressure on the school budget. Because of this the district needs to be prepared for larger reductions, McCandless said.
Committee member William Cameron went back to the 1980s when Proposition 2 1/2 decimated the school budget and caused the closure of schools and massive reductions in staff.
He asked McCandless if the administration would consider an expedited school reorganization process.
"Those are cuts of what I would say biblical proportions ... like that occurred when Proposition 2 1/2 went through and devastated the school district for years," he said. "An entire generation of young teachers was lost." 
McCandless said, using some very rough math, it costs about $5.5 million annually to operate a building in the district.
"A 10 percent decrease would most certainly be akin to closing a school. I think in reality it would be more akin to closing two schools," he said. "To do that in short order would simply set this city back and its schools and children back."
Mayor Linda Tyer noted how discouraging it was that the financial impacts of the pandemic will surely reset much of the progress the city has made. 
"My heart is thumping in my chest with the idea of the impact this will have on our public schools and municipal services," she said. 
She said she believed it was still important to pass a budget so there is a path forward. She noted the city still will have the ability to amend it, hopefully for the better, but be prepared to make further cuts. 
"We are faced with having to build a budget on assumptions in a complete vacuum of information," she said. "I still believe it is important that we pass a budget so we have a framework and can go forward."
McCandless broke down the reductions in more detail and said out of the 14 teaching positions they are proposing to eliminate, 11 will be regular education. This breaks down further into two high school teachers, two elementary specialists, two teachers of department, one case worker, four elementary teachers, and three elementary interventionists who will be redeployed within their buildings.
They also plan to eliminate 10 paraprofessional positions, one school adjustment counselor, a district curriculum position, one custodial position,and one nurse position.
McCandless said luckily these reductions reflect few actual staff reductions for teachers and paraprofessionals. With 13 teachers retiring, four paraprofessionals retiring, and some positions being eliminated that were never filled, this number should be kept to a minimum.
"We recognize through retirement, through attrition, through other means we will not be seeing people separated from their employment in any number at all for simply financial reasons alone," he said. "That is if we can maintain a level funded budget."
He said by chance the district receives some influx of money these positions will be the first to be returned. 
He said these details are likely to change as the year goes on.
"They will continue to change throughout October and November and although the big picture is the same we tried to put a finer point on it this evening," he said.
McCandless did note that they actually were able to bring on an electrical teacher and two English language learner teachers through grants.
He said there are about another $700,000 in reductions in the budget. The bulk of this amount is the "virtual elimination" of the curriculum line item.
The City Council will review the school budget at a future budget hearing.
"We have been here before. We have been in dire straits before," McCandless said. "We will continue to serve this community with integrity, with gusto, and with compassion and understanding. We will get through this."
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