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Governor's Budget Has 12.15% Hike for Pittsfield Schools
By Sabrina Damms, iBerkshires Staff
11:49AM / Saturday, March 18, 2023
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PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The school district is expecting a 12.5 percent boost in Chapter 70 state education aid as laid out in Gov. Maura Healey's proposed budget. 
The governor's local aid proposal increases Chapter 70 by $586 million, a 9.8 percent increase over fiscal 2023. That puts Pittsfield in line for $6,592,719 more in aid, for a total of $60,847,530 for fiscal 2024.
Chapter 70 is based in part on a community's ability to fund the education of its students, taking a number factors into account. Pittsfield's local share for Chapter 70 is 34 percent in FY 24. 
Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke told the School Committee last week that it was the largest increase she'd seen. 
The hike is based on the 2019 Student Opportunity Act that established higher foundation budget rates over a six-year time frame in benefits and fixed charges, guidance and psychological services, special education out of district tuition, English language learners, and low-income students. It also takes inflation into account, with rates capped at 4.5 percent this fiscal year. 
Next fiscal year, this is projected to be at about 3.38 percent based by the Congressional Budget Office. 
"So being at 4 1/2 percent doesn't quite make up for where we probably should have been last year where it was capped but it certainly is better than coming in at 2 percent or 3 percent," she said. 
The employee benefits rate is not included in the Student Opportunity Act so based, on the three-year average premium increase for Group Insurance Commission plans, it will be 5.16 percent. 
School Committee member Alison McGee asked whether the increase in Chapter 70 will be enough to cover aspects that have been impacted by the pandemic now that school relief funds that will be expiring.
The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER, funding and smaller grants the district received during the pandemic amounted to more than $20 million.  
The $6.6 million coming from Chapter 70 helps but it is not enough so it is a discussion they will have to have next fiscal year, Behnke said. 
Superintendent Joseph Curtis agreed with this statement, adding that although they are grateful for the increase, the district is preparing for how to use the remaining ESSER funds. 
"So, with the combination of both funding sources, we believe we'll be able to address student needs. When that depletes itself at the end of FY24, those will foster some debates amongst all of us on how to meet those continuing student needs because they certainly haven’t subsided," Curtis said. 
McGee recommended that the the district workshop ways to find resources to help students who are disabled or who are need of services.
"There's an increase in learning deficits becoming present in most districts but I think also, as a special educator, what I'm seeing is that I see students getting referred for special education services or evaluated who don't have a true disability and that's what special education is supposed to be for," McGee said. 
"So what we have are deficits that don't have any sort of formal support in place to address them because it is not an identified disability protected under the [Individual with Disabilities Education Act]."
One of the big in the state aid formula is phasing in assumed special education enrollment to higher levels.
This is going from 4.75 percent to 5 percent for vocational students, and from 3.75 percent to 4 percent of non-vocational students. 
The district is most of the way there at 4.9 percent for vocational and 3.9 percent for non-vocational students. 
Pittsfield enrollment decreased less than 1 percent, or about 41 students. The number of high school students went down by 103 but the vocational numbers went up by 59.
The district receives more revenue for vocational students, about $5,400 more. 
The English learners foundation enrollment increased significantly by 97 students. 
The low-income student count increased by 13 putting the district in a higher tier meaning an additional $500 per student. 
"It does certainly make a difference in terms of the amount of money that we receive for our low-income students and because having a higher concentration of low-income students those rates go up," Behnke said. 
School Committee member Sara Hathaway asked why the district is only getting half a share for prekindergarten students while there is a waiting list greater than the number of slots available. 
"I'm interested to know that we're not getting full reimbursement for each student at that level, and that seems like something we should be working on with our delegation," Hathaway said. 
Chairman William Cameron said this may because there are still some districts who have half-day kindergarten and will charge the families for the other half of the day. 
"I suspect that preK programs historically may have been viewed as part-time programs rather than full-day programs and I think that the formula hasn't caught up with reality in some respects," he said. 
Curtis added to that saying Pittsfield district went to full day preK programs in 2009 after families expressed the desire to have them. 
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