North Adams school budget approved; cuts 19 positions


NORTH ADAMS -- The School Committee on Tuesday approved a $16 million budget that cuts 19 positions districtwide.

The committee voted unanimously to approve a spending plan that closes an $827,000 deficit through a elimination of 10 teacher positions, five non-contract employees and four teaching assistants. The district also won approval for using $400,000 from its school choice fund to balance the budget.

The fiscal 2015 spending plan represents a 1.28 percent increase over the previous year, largely due to increasing special education costs, contractual salary obligations, and a rise in unfunded federal mandates, according to North Adams Public Schools Superintendent James Montepare. Other than those increases, Montepare said, the budget is "pretty much level-funded."

"We've worked on this a long time, a couple of months. All of our administrators went through everything with a fine-tooth comb."

The reductions in staffing would include a special education teaching position, three full-time instructional technology positions at the elementary schools, an elementary-level social studies teacher, a general education elementary school teacher and others.

Under the plan, the city -- which faces its own deficit of approximately $620,000 -- will contribute an additional $204,000 to meet its state-mandated minimum spending requirement to the district. The mayor's proposed $37.74 million fiscal 2015 city budget includes $200,000 in cuts and a $420,000 revenue package that would raise water and sewer rates.

Montepare said that, despite the significant cuts, the new spending plan should not have a significant impact on class sizes. On multiple occasions, he pointed to Chapter 70 state aid funding, which still sits below what the district received five years ago, as a challenge to the district.

The district also lost access to grant funding for several positions, Montepare said. For example, the cost of a staffer in the transition room for emotionally troubled students at Drury High School was covered through a grant last year but had to be picked up by the district in fiscal 2015, Montepare said.

In fiscal 2014 the district took in $3.3 million in grants, according to Montepare, far below previous years.

"We know fair well when that happens ... it is a very difficult situation for us to keep up," Montepare said. "It's again another dramatic reduction that we are just not able to sustain."

Committee member Mark Moulton said "our biggest concern is that children have a safe learning environment," and that the adopted budget, despite cuts, maintains that environment.

"As much as we hate to do [cuts] our funding is so limited," Moulton said, later adding that "the bits that we could possibly trim aren't going to be enough to make a huge difference."

Special education costs continue to increase, and Montepare argued the state should pick up a larger portion of the tab. North Adams schools pay about $60,000 each for about 17 to 20 special needs students to receive residential care out of the district, Montepare said, and some special needs students can cost the district up to $250,000. Government reimbursements for those costs, meanwhile, have decreased since the recession, he said.

"We have an intense population with intense needs, and we just aren't able to fund them," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, echoing Montepare's concerns about funding.

The budget passed with a warning from Montepare that he could be back before the council later this year asking for additional funding from the school choice account.

"If we follow that route, our school choice money will be gone in about a year and a quarter," Montepare said.

Though the budget passed unanimously, committee member John Hockridge argued that the committee should present the City Council with a budget that compares "our critical needs with their critical needs."

"We've already done the work for them; our critical needs are not there," Hockridge said.

To reach Adam Shanks:
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