There obviously are different perceptions of the school budget Pittsfield taxpayers will fund next year -- approved last week at $55.7 million by the City Council in a preliminary vote.
Councilor at large Barry Clairmont saw "hoarding" of funds from year to year in revolving budget accounts and elsewhere in the school budget, which he said totaled some $2.4 million for next year. He then proposed that $1.5 million be held in reserve and only used if the School Committee could show it really was required next school year, an idea that was rejected on a 10-1 vote with only the councilor in favor.
School officials, including Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi, an ex officio member of the School Committee, expressed a different perception. They said the budget represented a compromise between the initial higher figure proposed during committee sessions and the amount the mayor was willing to present to the council as part of his overall city budget of $137.7 million.
During the budget process that began over the winter, the figures submitted by department heads were steadily whittled down from the amounts administration officials said were needed in terms of new staff members, equipment and supplies and other spending. Compelling arguments were made for additional staff members -- such as a nursing position to help relieve and back up busy school nurses. That position would have been a valuable addition, and the concerns expressed by many councilors about high administrative salaries and the regular step raises for teachers are legitimate.
Superintendent Gordon Noseworthy described the school system's efforts to close a recognized student achievement gap reflected in testing and make needed investment in vocational education programs. All of those items were cut back during the budget process from amounts originally proposed or known to be required to meet district goals.
In addition, Mr. Noseworthy offered statistics showing that per-pupil spending in Pittsfield schools is below the Massachusetts average and the lowest in Berkshire County. This, officials have said, contributes to a school choice exodus out of Pittsfield to nearby districts that spend more. If the city intends to remain competitive in terms of providing quality education it must provide adequate funding.
This is not a bloated school budget, especially given the comparative levels of per-pupil spending. It is in fact responsible and well-defended. There will always be opposition to paying more in taxes for schools, infrastructure maintenance and other necessities of an attractive city, no matter the evidence to the contrary. But excessive budget cuts, particularly in regards to education, don't save money they cost money -- in students lost to school choice and in lost opportunities to bring in new students and encourage families to put down roots in Pittsfield.