PITTSFIELD -- The bottom line when the City Council's Finance Committee met the School Committee was that they might just make it a regular thing.
This week, four members of the council subcommittee met for the first time with the school board and heard a budget update from Assistant Superintendent for Finance Kristen C. Behnke. Questions councilors had raised about school spending and projected surpluses appeared to be answered to satisfaction, and their idea for regular updates gained traction.
"I think two meetings a year would be appropriate," School Committee Chairman Aldred E. "Alf" Barbalunga said toward the end of the discussion. He added that details would have to be worked out with his fellow board members.
Councilor at large Barry Clairmont, who originally asked that school officials meet with the Finance Committee on the same night city officials provided a quarterly update, said his request "was not intended to be confrontational" and "not a power grab."
The proposal, he said, was to "make it easier for the taxpayers," by providing them with a televised update on both the school and city budgets at a single meeting.
"I am a big supporter of the schools," he said, adding that he has a son in the system who has received an excellent education.
Clairmont and Council President Kevin Sherman acknowledged that the school board is a legally separate entity and had the right to turn down a request to appear at a Feb. 27 finance meeting --
Clairmont said that when his committee receives quarterly briefings on city spending and account deficits and surpluses, he typically informs Finance Director Susan Carmel of his questions in advance of the meetings and doesn't try to spring surprises before the cable TV cameras.
Sherman and Finance Committee Chairman Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop said the quarterly meetings on the city budget have made for a "productive process" that helps recognize budgetary problems as soon as they crop up.
One technical issue identified Wednesday is that the schools and city use different formats for account entries, and officials said they would work to make each easier for all to decipher. Clairmont said many of the large surplus projections he had made from school figures were incorrect because he didn't fully understand how the school budget progressed over the fiscal year.
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, a member of the School Committee, stressed that the board is "very prudent" in requesting a bottom line budget figure for the schools -- $55 million this year -- and the schools don't seek additional funding unless it is needed.
Behnke said she understands the school department's ultimate role as ensuring spending stays within the overall budget figure. She added that she is available year-round to answer councilor questions on budget issues.
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