Further spending cuts eyed in Pittsfield school budget for fiscal 2017


PITTSFIELD — Administrators have trimmed their projected fiscal 2017 budget for Pittsfield Public Schools, but further reductions are expected to bring down what today represents a $2.17 million hike in local taxes.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said his team has revised an earlier $60.8 million budget that reflected a 3.91 percent increase in spending for the schools down to $60.67 million, requiring a 3.7 percent tax hike.

The superintendent also outlined the type of cuts that would be required to bring the tax increase down to 2.5 percent and also to 2 percent.

As School Committee members offered their comments Wednesday on the plan, Mayor Linda M. Tyer, an ex officio board member, said she believes "it is not possible" to deliver education quality if the budget increase were reduced to 2.5 percent.

However, she asked, "Is there something between 2.5 percent and 3.7 percent? Is there a balance we can find?"

Tyer said she thought "it might be difficult for me to defend" the prior 3.91 percent school tax increase, especially given "all the competing interests" she must consider in the entire city budget — such as calls for increases in the police department budget.

"I am confident we can find some common ground between 2.5 and 3.7 percent," she told school officials.

McCandless said administrators will continue to evaluate the spending plan for next year and look for savings, incorporating the committee comments.

The committee next meets on April 27 and is required under the city government charter to provide a budget to the mayor and City Council before May 1.

In describing what the next level of cuts would require to get down to a 2.5 percent increase, McCandless said that would require cuts such as 11 elementary level teachers and one special education teacher, along with five to six high school level teachers, two from the middle schools, a main office administration staff member, four paraprofessionals and a school-level administrator — totaling 25 to 27 school positions, he said.

Getting down to a 2 percent school tax hike, he said, would further cut two or three vocational teachers, three central office staff members, some academic and arts programming, some after-school programming and examination of closing one of the city's 12 schools.

The superintendent and committee members later said that closing a school would not likely save any money, since resulting increased class sizes would lead to parents to send their children to other school districts and thereby reduce state aid to Pittsfield.

McCandless also reviewed the long-term trends that are driving budget increases in Pittsfield and other communities of its size. Despite a slow decline in student enrollment, he said, the rising number of students from low-income households, especially those requiring special needs instruction and care, hasn't allowed the schools to cut costs to reflect a shrinking student population.

In a series of charts and a presentation, which was recorded and can be viewed on Pittsfield Community Television's education channel, McCandless displayed figures that show the percentage from low-income households is at least 44.4 percent and possibly around 60 percent, while those requiring special education instruction or care has risen from 14.5 percent in 2002 to 20.3 percent today.

The percentage in English Language Learner programs has gone from 0.6 percent in 2002 to 4.6 percent today.

Students today "do not have the same issues," said committee member Pamela Farron, who as coordinator of disability services at Berkshire Community College, assists many of the same students when they try to adjust to college-level courses.

Farron said a rising percentage of students in city schools require special needs instruction or exhibit disruptive behavioral issues that can overwhelm a traditional teacher trying to teach.

Committee member Daniel Elias said he would like to see a comprehensive effort to get that message out to the general public, especially among the city's elderly population, whose experience in the school system was much different — and who are being asked to pay rising tax bills.

Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon said residents also should keep in mind that "there are wonderful things happening in our schools," and that the rankings the state applies based on standardized test schools "do not tell the whole story."

Yon noted several recent instances of high-level local student achievement in academics and the arts, saying their successes bolster for her and other board members "a core belief that education is the way out of poverty" and success in life.

Committee member Josh Cutler and others expressed frustration over the early deadline for adopting a school budget, as the state budget is still being debated in Boston — and changes in state aid or grant funding could significantly affect the local budget but won't likely become clear before June.

Another statewide factor, board member Cynthia Taylor noted, is a proposal to allow increases in the charter school system, which deletes state funding from local school budgets for each student that chooses that option.

"That is a $2 million loss" from the Pittsfield school budget," Taylor said, adding that "we wouldn't even be having this discussion" over budget cuts if that amount of state funding were added to local school budget.

The committee and school administration have come out strongly in opposition to expansion of the charter school system.

McCandless described the major budgetary forces driving increases this year as anticipated salary increases for six employee groups totaling $1.68 million, an increase in special education tuition costs of $440,000, and adding community coordinator positions to the local budget after grant funding expired — costing $228,000.

Committee members also commented that some two dozen positions were eliminated in the current budget and were not replaced, as the district struggled last spring to meet rising costs and pay for a number of unfunded state and federal mandates.

Levels of Chapter 70 and other state aid to public education also have not kept pace with soaring costs, increasing pressure on budgets at the district level, McCandless said.

"We have already lost a lot on the cutting room floor," Taylor said, referring to many worthy requests the committee heard from school principals at the start of the budget process.

During the public hearing portion of the meeting Wednesday, only Craig Gaetani, who often advocates before the City Council in favor of reducing taxes, was the only person to comment. He said the committee should look to cut administration costs and others to reduce the tax burden.

Taylor said later that statistics comparing districts in the region show Pittsfield already is among the lowest on average in spending and personnel for its administrative staff.

Committee member Anthony Riello said the schools have continually looked at ways to reform the budget process to make it more efficient.

"It all comes down to what level of service we expect as a community," he said.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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