McCandless warns of budget cuts, answers harsh criticism


PITTSFIELD — The fiscal 2017 school budget will include cuts to important programs, Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless warned School Committee members Wednesday, saying that reflects a trend among similar size districts around the state.

McCandless also responded to harsh and sometimes disparaging attacks on the level of spending and on school officials in the "blogosphere" and from a former committee member — apparent references to blogger Dan Valenti, former board member Terry Kinnas and others.

During the meeting, McCandless presented figures on average teacher salary, per-pupil spending by school districts and student losses because of school choice departures, which he said counters inaccurate comments about the Pittsfield school system.

"We are not cutting easy things anymore," McCandless said of the ongoing budget process for next year. "We are now choosing between things that are vital."

Rising costs, state aid increases that are smaller than in past years, state and federal mandates and other factors continue to squeeze districts like Pittsfield's with limited potential to raise taxes, McCandless said.

He added, "We know we cannot even provide a level-services budget, based on budget realities."

McCandless said the administration is now preparing the first version of the fiscal 2017-18 budget for the first of the committee's budget sessions Feb. 10. A final school budget is due by May 1.

As was the case when some $2 million in reductions were required last spring despite a tax increase, he said administrators are honing in on the central focus of public education — revolving around "the centrality of the classroom."

That means, he said, looking to expand partnerships begun in recent years with local organizations to provide services the district has traditionally offered, such as teen parent or adult education programming.

Those core services, he said, include books, technology, school building maintenance, well-educated and trained teachers, course variety, safety, and discipline and order.

The focus, McCandless said, has to remain on the district's core mission of giving teachers what it takes to provide quality education in the classroom. But he said there is also "the centrality of the mandate," which requires the district — for both legal and moral reasons — to provide certain services.

On that score, he listed numerous state mandates for special education plans, standardized testing, evaluation of teachers and other administrators and "dozens of bureaucratic requirements" he said he declined to include because of how long that would take.

Kristen Behnke, assistant superintendent for business and finance, reported on the latest estimates for state Chapter 70 aid to schools, saying Gov. Charlie Baker proposes a $122,000 hike for the district. But she said other language in his proposed budget indicates a significant cut in grant funding for kindergarten programming the district received in the past, which had funded teaching positions and other expenses.

McCandless said he wants to "revisit how [state aid to education] is distributed" in the overall city budget, as Chapter 70 funds come first to a municipality, not directly to the school district.

McCandless also said he wants to dispel rumors that Pittsfield school officials are like "Daddy Warbucks throwing money around," adding, "I would like to publicly start the conversation on this."

He displayed state statistics for 2013-14 that show the average teacher salary in Pittsfield schools was $64,762, which ranked 10th of 16 county districts, with Williamstown and Mount Greylock Regional first and second, at $73,965 and $73,305, respectively.

Over the years, McCandless said, Pittsfield's salary average has been "around middle-ish" in the area. The city is "not the league leader in this," he said.

Rejecting harsh criticism of the recently concluded three-year teacher contract — especially concerning the uniform 3 percent annual step raises that were included — McCandless said making the step hikes uniform for the first time will actually save "tens of thousands" over the course of the contract compared to prior varied step raise contracts.

In addition, he said Pittsfield requires 19 annual steps to reach the top salary, compared to 10 or 12 for many other districts.

Examining per-pupil expenditures for the same year, McCandless noted that Pittsfield was at $13,755, below the area average of $14,580. Eight local districts had per-pupil spending figures above $15,000 that year, three above $16,000 and two above $18,000 per pupil.

He said that were Pittsfield to spend to the county average, that would add $12.7 million to the budget, and if to the state average per pupil, that would add $5.36 million to the Pittsfield schools budget.

Responding to criticism of Pittsfield's loss of some $2.5 million in state school aid funding because of students going outside the district — compared to only $500,000 coming in with choice students — McCandless said Pittsfield actually has a comparatively low percentage of students choicing out.

For 2013-14, 13.3 percent of the 6,461 potential students living here went elsewhere to school or were homeschooled, he said. For the other larger Berkshire communities, the percentage ranged from 17.49 to 26.89 percent, according to the figures.

The percentage of possible city students opting for another public school or a public charter school was 8.23 percent that year, he said. Only Dalton had a lower percentage going to other public schools, while other districts ranged from 8.21 to 19.68 percent going to other public schools.

The comparatively high dollar figure of state funding flowing out of Pittsfield is because it is the largest local district with around 6,000 students, he said, adding that Pittsfield compares well to similar size districts in the state.

"I challenge anyone who thinks differently to really dig into the numbers around the commonwealth," McCandless said.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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