Pittsfield administrators to review school budget prior to April 13 public hearing

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PITTSFIELD — The School Committee on Wednesday received a line-item summary of the administration's fiscal 2017 budget proposal and will hold a public hearing on the spending plan on April 13.

The preliminary budget for next year reflects a tax levy increase from $58.5 million to $60.8 million, or 3.91 percent, but Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said he expects changes prior to the public hearing. He said meetings are planned for next week involving administrators and school principals to review all sections of the budget.

"It will likely be slightly different from this," he said of the proposal.

McCandless added that the administration "certainly intends to bring back a budget that is respectful of the community" — a reference to his prior pledge to always consider both the needs of the school system and the city's ability to provide funding.

At the committee meeting Wednesday, Kristen Behnke, the assistant superintendent for business and finance, went over the line-item budget she had prepared and highlighted changes from the current year.

One of the unknowns at this point, Behnke noted, concerns the possible forced closing of the Eagleton School in Great Barrington, which would require the emergency placement of five Pittsfield students in other programs, probably at a higher cost for the school system this year.

She said the administration was notified Wednesday by state officials of the pending change, with discussions involving the specific student placements expected during future meetings.

Some of the cost of any tuition increase for those students might be covered by the state's "circuit-breaker" provision, allowing funding reimbursements for higher-than-normal or greatly increased special education costs, officials said.

Eagleton School has been under investigation by state agencies after reports earlier this year of aggressive and abuse treatment of students by some staff members. Five staff members were arrested following a raid by police and state officials and they now face charges and were subsequently fired.

The state Department of Early Education and Care on March 17 began a notification process that could lead to revocation of the private school's license to operate a residential program.

Eagleton is expected to appeal any decision to revoke its licenses to operate a residential program for male students 9 to 22 years of age with developmental or behavioral problems.

The school "has generally been a lower cost placement" than other program options, Behnke said, which is the reason for the projected increase in tuition cost for the Pittsfield district.

There are several significant factors that could impact the budget for next school year, including the final level of Chapter 70 state aid the district receives — as a number of lawmakers are pushing for an increase from the amount in Gov. Charlie Baker's state budget plan. Those factors include the level of grant funding for kindergarten education, which was reduced in the governor's budget but could be added to during the budget process; the overall cost of special education, which can change significantly with one or a few student placements in expensive programs; and the final cost of employee raises for four groups still in negotiations with the School Committee — custodians, cafeteria workers, clerical workers and paraprofessionals.

Raises next year for those groups, as well as for contracts settled previously for teachers and administrators, account for approximately $1.68 million of the projected 2017 budget hike of $2.29 million, according to a presentation McCandless provided the committee at a prior meeting.

Behnke also noted positive news in the next budget, including contracts the district concluded for natural gas and electricity, which are expected to result in savings of $400,000 and $60,000 respectively next year.

Mayor Linda M. Tyer, an ex officio member of the committee, has said she wants to examine the priorities of each city department before deciding on a recommendation for the schools in the overall city budget.

The committee is charged under the city charter with approving a budget by May 1 for submission to the mayor. The mayor would then submit an overall budget to the council, which will hold hearings on each department request before voting in June, prior to the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Behnke said Wednesday that the annual informational Pittsfield Public Schools Budget Book, containing extensive information on educational programs, costs, personnel, enrollment, spending in comparison to other districts in the state; state aid and grant funding levels, and more, is now posted online on the Pittsfield schools website, under www.pittsfield.net/district_info/business_office

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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