PITTSFIELD — In an effort to balance the needs of students with taxpayer concerns, the Pittsfield School Committee on Wednesday night adopted a $60.94 million school budget for fiscal 2017.
By a 6-0 vote, with Anthony Riello absent, the committee supported a spending plan 2.91 percent higher than the current $59.21 million budget.
Taxpayers are being asked to fund $60.32 million — minus $620,000 in school choice and tuition revenue being used to help offset the expenditures.
If the City Council approves the taxpayer assessment, the new school budget would take effect July 1.
The committee's vote came after nearly two hours of discussion that included Pittsfield Public Schools Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless offering a revised budget lower than what the committee supported.
With uncertainty of the city's overall financial health looming, McCandless presented a $60.79 million plan — a 2.66 percent hike — that included eliminating seven positions, totaling $500,000.
While some of the jobs would be cut through attrition, the staff reductions didn't play well with the committee, which in the end rejected the lower budget increase.
"We're at the point where Pittsfield has higher expectations from us than this," said Cynthia Taylor. "We can't keep cutting, cutting, cutting until there is nothing left."
The committee was most concerned about eliminating the school district's attendance coordinator; a $73,000 a year position that tracks the most chronically absent students, working with them and their parents to ensure they show up for classes.
"To me the number one priority is getting the kids to the front door," said Daniel Elias.
"I believe this position has helped curb the high school dropout rate," said Joshua Cutler.
The committee also felt strongly about keeping the dean of students at Allendale Elementary School and two career counselors, one at each high school.
Initially, the school board tied those four jobs to its adopted budget, but withdrew the condition, leaving it to McCandless and his administration to determine what job reductions have the least impact on students.
Nevertheless, the school district plans to notify — as per union contracts — 150 of the 1,200 school system employees they could be affected by additional budget cuts should the City Council seek further spending reductions.
If the School Committee's budget remains intact, the notices would be rescinded.
Years ago, the school district's threat of layoffs was an annual occurrence that didn't sit well with the teachers like veteran Pittsfield educator Dawn Quinlan.
"For the first five years of my career, I was laid off every year," Quinlan told the committee. "I am disheartened we're in a situation I was in 30 years ago."
In previous board meetings, school officials have described the major budgetary forces driving increases this year as anticipated salary hikes for six employee groups totaling $1.68 million, a boost in special education tuition costs of $440,000 and adding community coordinator positions to the local budget after grant funding expired — costing $228,000.
Levels of Chapter 70 and other state aid to public education also have not kept pace with soaring costs, increasing the pressure on budgets at the district level, McCandless has said.
Pittsfield High School chemistry teacher Scott Eldridge urged the committee to choose a quality education over the bottom line.
"Please don't let an income shortfall — it's and income not a spending problem — impact our students," said Eldridge, a past president of the local teachers union, Untied Educators of Pittsfield.
Contact Dick Lindsay at 413 496-6233