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Pittsfield Budget Day 3: School Budget
By Brittany Polito, iBerkshires Staff
05:30AM / Thursday, June 01, 2023
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School staff and school committee members attend the nearly four-hour-long hearing.

Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio for the school system's underperformance and low pay for paraprofessionals. 

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council preliminarily approved a $78 million budget for the Pittsfield Public Schools on Tuesday, up almost 8 percent from the previous year.

"This budget proposal that we will be presenting this evening reflects our unwavering aspiration to deliver the highest standard of education to each and every student while addressing the changing needs and challenges that urban school districts face across the state, certainly in the country," Superintendent Joseph Curtis said on the third day of the fiscal 2024 departmental hearings.

"As you know, our city schools are much more than mere structures. They are the places where ambitions take form and young minds are nurtured into the leaders, innovators, and active contributors of tomorrow's society. Our strongest visual representation of this is the hundreds of seniors of Pittsfield High School and Taconic High School joining their families and friends and loved ones this Sunday to embark on the next chapter of their lives, bidding farewell to the Pittsfield Public Schools."

The $78,088,016 ask is a $5,589,754, or 7.86 percent, increase from fiscal 2023. Eighty-five percent of the increase, or almost $4.9 million, is for special education, Career Technical Education and career pathways, and contractual obligations.  

About $220,000 was cut from the initial draft budget after a conversation with Mayor Linda Tyer, bringing the ask from $78,310,016 to $78,088,016. With offsets from school choice and Richmond tuition funds, the total budget is $78,558,016.

Councilor at Large Karen Kalinowksy, Ward 2 Councilor Charles Kronick and Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio voted in opposition to the spending figure.

Kronick feels that the budget does not offer a solution.

"There is actually a lot of things that the School Committee, the administration, the superintendent can work with to resolve a lot of the issues that are driving the quality of our education, student's education," he said.

"And that's what we're really talking about.  The question really is how are the students when you talk about what's really at stake here and they're not doing very well and the paraprofessionals are a testimony to that."

He and Kalinowsky both said the budget needs to go back to the administration to be tweaked.

Maffuccio expressed concern for the district's underperforming schools and insufficient support staff pay.  
Before this school year, four schools were under the 10th percentile in Masachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System testing, which is the designation for a turnaround school. Herberg Middle School has exited the designation and is now in the 17th percentile. Curtis said the district's restructuring study will address this issue.

"It's just mind-blowing to me that we're underperforming after all these years," Maffuccio said to Curtis.

"Even under your leadership, we've shown no growth. That concerns me about our school system.  That's what turns people off from coming to our school system is the way you're modeling it. You're not modeling it appropriately."

Councilor at Large Peter White urged the council to look at the amount of work that went into this budget and the impact on students.

"I fully understand that this is the biggest budget we're going to look at, it's our biggest chance to save the taxpayer dollars but every student we have choice out, every student that doesn't get everything they need in the classroom, we're not really saving any money there," he said.

He does not believe in cutting the budget when there are spending items that the councilors would like to see increased. For this vote, the panel votes on the final metric and cannot move to reduce specific line items.

School Committee Chair William Cameron said the panel spent at least 40 to 50 hours on the proposal.

"I just think for us to try to decide what the solutions are tonight in three hours, it's really difficult when we have a roomful of experts who put time in every day," White said.

The district is currently is facing a labor dispute with the Pittsfield Federation of School Employees Local 1315 for entering a $1.5 million contract with a private staffing company to fill paraprofessional vacancies. This generated a significant amount of conversation and advocacy for higher pay.

"I don't want to beat a dead horse, I think you got the idea that the council has unanimous support regarding paraprofessionals," Ward 1 Councilor Kenneth Warren said to the administrators.

The union alleges that the district employed 46 paraprofessionals through Blazerworks of Georgia and paid them $50 an hour, while PPS pay ranges between $20 an hour and $27 an hour.

The base pay for Step 1 paraprofessionals is currently $17 an hour — $20 an hour with a bachelor's degree.

"Paying contracted employees more than you pay your own employees is disrespectful," said Walter Armstrong, field representative for the American Federation of Teachers, during open microphone.

"It's a slap in the face for all of our professionals who work for the Pittsfield Public Schools."

Curtis said both teams are actively engaged with legal counsel to ensure a prompt resolution.

"I agree with all of you that the wage was not sufficient in attracting employees," he admitted.

Curtis said there were more like 23 positions filled through the agency. Because of the complaint, negotiations on the PFSE's 2022-2025 contract were reopened and they are discussing raising the base to $20 an hour that was "not met with warm reception" and counter-offered.  

"Our intention was, because this was after we developed our budget, to raise that dollar amount to $20 to start," he explained.

"We know that we wouldn't be able to hire all of the care professionals that we put forth in the budget and when we use that additional funds that we're putting forth in that session to do so."

He agreed that the pay was not sufficient to attract employees and Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke later pointed out that it was a sensible metric one year ago when the contract was decided on.

While she commends the schools' efforts to address student emotional needs and diversity, equity, and inclusion, Ward 6 Councilor Dina Lampiasi pointed to the costs of living and is concerned that the district has not done better in this area.

"But if we as a community and we as a school system are saying that we value people and we want to move out of poverty, paying a poverty wage is concerning to me," she said.

Councilor at Large Earl Persip III pointed out that the paraprofessionals are unionized and are being represented.

"We all can agree that the pay may not be high enough, because there's a union that's fighting for that so I think we have to keep that in mind when you're talking about people's pay raises," he said.

"We also go back to the taxpayer to pay those pay raises so we just can't give a blanket pay raise to everyone who is underpaid in one year or two years. It's kind of like a progression."

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier also took the podium to advocate for continued support of the school budget — especially in relation to Student Opportunity Act funding.

The act addresses dire needs in the state's education system and is bringing more than $60 million in FY24 with an expected increase of more than $30 million in FY27. She said that, without continued high-level investments in Pittsfield Public Schools, the full benefits will not be realized.

She outlined the funding best practices that include expanded learning time, wraparound support services, improved staffing levels and retention, expanded professional development, up-to-date materials and equipment, and expanded early education.

The act did not tell School Committees how to allocate the funds but Farley-Bouvier explained that it instilled faith in the bodies.

"What we said is we have faith in you. We have faith in you to spend all that money appropriately. Why? Because the needs of Quincy are not the same needs in Pittsfield. We put our faith in you and now I'm asking you to have faith with us and I'm going to ask you to hold me accountable," she said.

"I'm asking you to hold me accountable that this money in its third of six years will keep coming even if there's a downturn in our economy. I want you to hold me accountable that after the six-year rollout, we will have a plan to keep it going. I want you to hold the mayor and the superintendent, this mayor and the next mayor, this superintendent, and the next superintendent to make sure those funds are spent on those seven things I just talked about, and if they're not then why?  They got to be able to tell you why,"

"I'm asking you now to keep faith that the student opportunity funds are not to replace the local contribution but to fill the gap. And so if I'm looking at it in a basic way, what was the local contribution before the Student Opportunity Act? It shouldn't be one penny less. It could be a little more but it shouldn't be less."

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