PITTSFIELD -- A proposed $56.7 million public schools budget for fiscal 2014 calls for a 4.9 percent increase over the current year, but the mayor hopes to find a way to cut that figure roughly in half.
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, who also is a member of the School Committee, said he believes a total increase in the neighborhood of 2.5 to 3 percent should be the target.
"My goal is to get somewhere in-between," he said. "I don't think 4 to 5 percent is a reasonable figure."
Superintendent Gordon Noseworthy presented to the School Committee on Wednesday the initial $56,762,983 budget plan for the coming year, which begins July 1. Once the committee reviews and approves its budget -- expected following a public hearing on May 23 -- the plan goes to the mayor, who in turn will seek approval from the City Council for an appropriation for the schools.
Efforts to pare down the budget will begin in the next two weeks during meetings involving Bianchi, Noseworthy, city Finance Director Susan Carmel, School Department Finance Director Kristen Behnke and one or more School Committee members.
Bianchi said his hope is that "we can put together a budget we can all agree on," and avoid problems similar to past years when school budgets were submitted that were too high to have a chance for approval by the council and/or the mayor.
The spending plan prepared by the administration is currently about $1.3 million above what Bianchi has proposed as a target.
Noseworthy said the budget was forged after numerous meeting with staff members, who began considering the fiscal 2014 budget in October. The process included top administration-level discussions beginning in March and meetings with the mayor twice this month, he said.
Among expenses driving the budget increase, Noseworthy said, are implementation of the week on/week off schedule for vocational education programs, which involves an additional 2.4 full-time-equivalent staff members.
In addition, he said city schools are spending less than the state average on the vocational programs it proposes as part of a revised curriculum integral to a planned new or renovated Taconic High School project. The state, which would provide up to 80 percent of funding for the building project, will monitor the city's commitment to funding the vocational courses offered, he said.
"I do believe [the city] has a commitment to that," Bianchi said, calling the vocational curriculum "a top priority."
Other budget items cited by Noseworthy were requests from administrators to add staff members, estimated as costing $571,135 -- cut down from $2.3 million in initial personnel requests; a bus fleet upgrade adding eight new vehicles, costing $453,585; and a technology upgrade required over the next two years for Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers student testing, costing $100,000 next year.
Bianchi said he believes "reaching a middle ground" on a school budget increase is possible by looking again at the spending requests, the revenue picture that includes state aid, and such considerations as the bus purchase plan and whether borrowing for that expense would be advisable.
In his presentation, Noseworthy also cited some statistics for consideration, including that the Pittsfield system is spending $949 per pupil less than the Massachusetts average, which he said would require an additional $5.8 million in spending "to bring us up to the average in a competitive world of college and career education."
The city schools have a total enrollment of 6,137 students.
Pittsfield spending per pupil is $12,708, he said, while the state average is $13,656. Central Berkshire Regional School District is at $13,282, Noseworthy said, while other districts in the area were listed at above the state average. Mount Greylock Regional School District was listed highest at $17,499 per student.
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