Pittsfield City Council approves $56.5 million school budget


PITTSFIELD -- City councilors raised questions Thursday about several line items in the Pittsfield school budget for next year, but no cuts were proposed and the $56.5 million spending plan passed unanimously.

The action contrasted with the last-minute, $200,000 spending reduction councilors voted a year ago, forcing the School Committee to impose cuts to several accounts to meet that figure.

Councilor at large Barry Clairmont, who last year proposed the $200,000 reduction, saying some accounts seemed overbudgeted, praised the efforts of Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless, other officials and committee members for having "heard my concerns."

McCandless, who began in the position after the current budget was in place, made efforts to include councilors in the process and to reduce rollover accounts and others that appeared bloated, such as the fuel account, Clairmont said.

McCandless detailed the budget process and figures Thursday, reiterating his earlier statement that he sought to create "a transparent" budget through a process in which everyone might not agree but might feel their voice was heard.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi said after the vote he believes councilors recognized the school proposal as "a reasonable budget. It was one we worked long and hard on."

The spending plan saw participation since last fall from his administration, school officials and committee members and council Finance Committee members, who were briefed about the budgetary decisions, the mayor said.

"Speaking for myself, I think the budget process this year was much better than last year," Clairmont said.

McCandless, School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon and Assistant Superintendent for Business and Finance Kristen Behnke outlined the budget reductions made by the committee since the beginning of the year to develop a plan that reflects a $1 million increase over the current year.

That also absorbed $1.3 million in contractual pay raises and increased spending in targeted areas, such as on vocational programming and computer technology. Behnke detailed the shifting of grant funds and other steps to increase spending in those areas.

However, hundreds of thousands in requests for additional equipment or staff to address serious educational needs had to be rejected, McCandless said. An early version of the budget showed a $2 million increase, but the school administration eventually worked that figure down to a $1 million hike, which was a target suggested by the mayor.

Ward 6 Councilor John Krol said he would support the budget but believed it might be too lean, especially considering the number of city students who choose to attend other schools. Behnke had estimated that about $2 million in potential state aid left the district with those students under the state's school choice funding formula.

Krol said he sees an opportunity to "send a strong message" in favor of education and gain additional aid by retaining more choice students.

The council will meet June 24 to consider the mayor's overall $141.2 million municipal and school budget. During its budget session Saturday on the city budget, councilors recommended changes in city spending and in the mayor's $10.8 million capital budget.

The city budget and proposed changes were referred back to the mayor Thursday night.

Bianchi said following the meeting that, in light of the proposals offered by councilors, he will propose an increase of $2 million in funding for street improvements, for a total of $3 million. Several councilors had advocated more funding in the capital plan for that purpose.

Another $3 million toward reconstruction of a new highway garage at the site of the garage on West Housatonic Street that was destroyed by fire in 2012 was deleted from the mayor's capital plan, after councilors raised questions about the site and plans for the reconstruction. The city also has received an insurance payment following the fire.

The mayor's proposed purchase of five rapid response EMS vehicles, at $270,000, and consolidation of all city inspectors into one department, at $100,000, were removed from the capital budget. Overall, capital spending was reduced to $9.5 million in the package Bianchi expects to submit to the council on June 24.

In the regular city budget, two new police officers were added by Bianchi to allow more downtown patrols, which had been funded this year through police overtime. The overtime account was reduced by the same amount.

To reach Jim Therrien:
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