PITTSFIELD -- The $1 million gap between School Superintendent Howard "Jake" Eberwein's proposed school budget for the next fiscal year and Mayor Daniel Bianchi's $53.6 million plan for the department has aroused pointed criticism from the former mayor, James Ruberto.
As a result of a chance encounter with an Eagle reporter over the weekend, Ruberto agreed to discuss the school budget issue but no other current city topics.
Ruberto, acknowledging that putting a budget together that balances potential tax increases with community needs is "incredibly challenging," de clared that he is "extremely disappointed, but not surprised" by the distance between Bianchi's school spending proposal and Eberwein's.
"At the core, it involves basic principles and priorities," Ruberto said, adding that spending to ensure the "highest quality of education for our children" had been accomplished during his eight years in office through constant communication between City Hall and the School Department.
Bianchi told The Eagle on Monday afternoon that he "appreciates the former mayor's input," and that discussions toward a school budget compromise are continuing.
Ruberto pointed out that for his final 2011-12 city budget, he directed just over $500,000 of the $1.4 million in "Chapter 70" state aid to local communities to the School Department, as well as federal stimulus aid, "so we could continue city services without interruption and keep a reasonable flow to the school system.
Ruberto suggested that the spread between City Hall and School Department proposals be closed by dipping into some of the available $5.2 million "free cash" reserve and/or by adding some property tax revenue, since the city is about $5 million under the maximum it can seek from taxpayers.
"This is a philosophical issue, reversing an eight-year commitment by the community," Ruberto added. "It's unfortunate because it need not happen."
Efforts to bridge some of the $1 million gap continued on Monday afternoon, said Mayor Bianchi, who emphasized the city is now operating not only without $1.3 million in federal stimulus aid but also has lost $500,000 to $600,000 in federal grants.
Eberwein has submitted three budget scenarios -- low, middle and high, Bianchi said. The lowest, $53.5 million, is the one the mayor has favored so far, a $1,022,000 increase over the current year. The mid-level School Department plan -- about $54.5 million -- represents an expenditure increase of about 1.4 percent over the 2012 total.
Bianchi's view is that the one-shot injection of federal stimulus funding "should have been used to smooth things out, not for salary increases."
"It should have been directed toward one-time expenditures such as textbooks or technology improvements," he said.
"He [Eberwein] told me he knew we were heading toward a cliff, and now we're there," said Bianchi, who pointed out that the overall city budget proposal already uses $1.6 million in "free cash" to help balance the bottom line -- an increase over the current year's $1 million allotment in former mayor Ruberto's final budget.
Citing a $3 million increase in health and pension obligations for next year, Bianchi said he and Eberwein have had a "real heart-to-heart about where this is going."
But the mayor left the door open for using more "free cash," as well as dipping into more than $2 million in School Department revolving accounts, to help forge a compromise. Even adding a bit more property tax revenue remains on the table, Bianchi said.
As for the possible 30 layoffs discussed at last Wednesday's heavily attended School Committee meeting, Bianchi said 20 of them are "permanent full-time substitutes who show up every day and may or may not have assignments." But, with a normal attrition rate of 20 to 40 staffers each year, he predicted anyone receiving layoff notices may be moved into other positions.
"It's not like all these people will be losing their jobs," he stressed. "I've emphasized this needs to be as humane as possible. Teaching and instructional positions should be the last to be considered [for reductions]."
Nevertheless, Bianchi added, with a projected 2.5 percent tax increase based on a nearly $133 million total city spending plan, "we have to be cognizant of the effects on taxpayers. We have to be prudent."
"At the end of the day, we'll provide a good, strong educational opportunity for our kids," said Bianchi. "I don't see this weakening our system at all. It's so important that we have healthy public discussions."