Saturday June 29, 2013

There are good and bad reasons to cut an education budget, and a bad reason would be to spite a School Committee chairman. That appears to have been at least a partial motive, along with perhaps some election year posturing, behind a Pittsfield City Council majority’s narrow decision Thursday night to hack $200,000 from the school system’s budget.

The school budget was signed off at $55.5 million following the approval of a reduction proposed by Councilor at large Barry Clairmont, who argued that past surpluses in the fuel and electricity line item indicated that $200,000 could be cut from those line items. School Committee Chairman Alfred "Alf" Barbalunga asserted that utility costs were difficult to predict, and went on to say that unexpected costs or a loss in state aid could result in a loss of teaching positions. The latter statement enraged a number of councilors, who apparently interpreted it as a playing of the "teacher card" by the School Committee chairman.

The cut was passed 6-5, with Councilors Clairmont, Christopher Connell, Kevin Morandi, Melissa Mazzeo, Christine Yon and Anthony Simonelli voting in favor and Council President Kevin Sherman and Councilors John Krol, Churchill Cotton, Jonathan Lothrop and Paul Capitanio in opposition. Mr. Morandi saw this cut as a "positive gesture" on behalf of taxpayers, and gestures are common in an election year, but the budget reduction may not be seen that way by everyone.

Pittsfield is last in Berkshire County in per pupil spending, and spends $949 less per student than the average in Massachusetts. For the city to get to the average in the state, its budget would have to be in the vicinity of $60 million. The city is well under the Proposition 21Ž2 limit, and is not over-taxed. If Pittsfield wants to gain students through school choice rather than lose them, if it wants to attract families and businesses, it has to at least do as well by its schools as do neighboring communities. Pittsfield also has to do well by its students in preparing them for the demands of college and/or the demands of an increasingly competitive global workplace.

Nickel-and-diming the school budget because of anger or the desire to make a political statement is not a positive gesture but a negative message sent far and wide.