The state often has good ideas when it comes to public education. It doesn't always provide the dollars necessary to help financially strapped municipalities put these good ideas into practice. The result is city officials struggling to meet rising educational demands and costs when revenue is not keeping pace.
This is the reality that the Pittsfield School Committee began confronting Wednesday night when Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless outlined the fiscal 2015 budget for the city's schools. Like most northeastern cities, Pittsfield's tax base is shrinking but it has more low-income families whose children deserve a good education. It must maintain the quality of its schools to not only serve students but attract families and businesses to the city. And it must address state mandates.
While the state will fund about 80 percent of the cost of a new Taconic High School, it may cost the city $100,000 to improve its vocational program to meet state demands and release that funding. The red tape generated by special education programs is largely the reason why two more special education teachers are needed at a cost of $90,000. The state's new educator evaluation system will cost the city $70,000 to implement, and the state is mandating the purchase of new standardized testing equipment. If the state thinks a new program is important enough to mandate it, it should also provide funding. If no funding is provided to local school systems, then the mandates cannot be all that important.
The superintendent's urging of a team effort among school and city officials and open lines of communications among them was welcome, as the poor working relationship between the School Committee and City Council has recently hampered efforts to accomplish what was already a difficult task. The cost of education continues to rise, and not just because of mandates, while the pool of money to pay these costs stagnates or declines. Tough decisions are ahead, and it will be easier to make them and confront their ramifications if all parties share information and are respectful of one another and of the realities facing city taxpayers.