PITTSFIELD -- Delivering a sobering financial assessment, the Pittsfield schools superintendent this week described for School Committee members the steep challenges they face in crafting a fiscal 2015 budget.
Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless provided an overview of the preliminary budget, which follows a series of meetings with school and city officials to gather cost estimates and project the operational needs. Thus far, prior to a thorough review, the total is nearly $2 million higher than the current budget year, McCandless said.
In general, he said, one of his key goals will to be "respectful of the public we serve," including city taxpayers, during the budget process. He called for a transparent and straightforward process that spells out what school officials believe is needed and what that would cost -- as well as the details behind budgeting decisions.
And McCandless advocated working closely "as a team" with Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi and the City Council on a spending plan, while keeping the lines of communication open throughout.
"We have to be honest about where we are and who we are," the superintendent said.
"At the end of the day, my sincere hope is that we can provide a level-services budget next year," while also continuing some growth in strategic areas, he said. Those areas include career/technical education programs and new computer technology.
The superintendent then detailed just how difficult that task could be by listing hundreds of thousands in anticipated new costs to meet new state mandates or critical needs that have been underfunded and employee contractual obligations.
Pittsfield schools should spend an additional $100,000 for career/technical education, he said, in part because the city is promising an enhanced 15-course vocational program for the planned new Taconic High School.
While funding about 80 percent of the school construction cost, the state will require that the city provide adequate funding for vocational programs, he said.
Another $90,000 is direly needed for two special education team leaders, McCandless said, to relieve teachers of paperwork and bureaucratic tasks that teachers in most other districts don't have to shoulder.
He said $70,000 will also be required to meet the new state educator evaluation system goals of statistically determining an educator's record of moving students forward.
McCandless termed that cost, along with the cost of new standardized testing equipment and training expenses, unfunded state mandates.
As Pittsfield schools begin implementing the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) student testing, McCandless said the city will need $165,000 in computer and other equipment and supplies and another $40,000 in technical and other support personnel.
This includes an additional 320 iPads or Chrome Books in fiscal 2015. The standardized tests will be taken in an online, paperless format.
The school bus fleet also is being replaced and will cost the schools from $230,000 to $350,000 next year, McCandless said. If a bus cost figure of $300,000 is chosen, he said, the system already faces $765,000 in higher costs if the level of services this year is to be maintained.
And another $1.3 million is needed to meet contractual obligations next year to employees, McCandless said. Principals, directors and coordinators have, in addition, requested more than $2 million in new employee positions during the first round of budget meetings.
Those requests break down to 52 positions systemwide, or 45 full-time-equivalent positions. After listening to the back-up reasoning for the personnel requests, "that 52 is not disrespectful [of taxpayers]," the superintendent said, adding that many of the positions -- if fully funded -- would relieve severe understaffing situations, such as in the number of school nurses and in the informational technology staff that maintains an expanding systems.
"The public does need to know this," said Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon, referring to the rising costs of education and the higher percentage of students from low-income families. "Things are different now," she said.
"This is not the same public we served 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago," McCandless said. With a rising number receiving free- or reduced-cost school lunches, the city faces "more challenging needs today," he said.
Committee member Pamela Farron, who works with special needs students at Berkshire Community College, agreed, saying the college also is seeing many more students needing assistance. "I think we are in a crisis situation, and we need to address it," she said.
Committee member Cynthia Taylor advocated vocal parental involvement in the school budget process as it moves from the committee to the mayor and finally to the council in June.
McCandless responded that the schools directly affect a sizable percentage of the city's population of about 42,000. There are 6,000 students, all of whom have at least one parent and an extended family, he said, and there are 1,200 employees in the schools and their families.
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