Pittsfield School Committee debates grant writer post to plug funding gaps


PITTSFIELD — As the total amount of state and federal grant funding to the school district continues a relentless decline, the city School Committee is discussing the option of hiring a grant writer to bolster or enhance educational programming.

The committee was briefed by administration officials Wednesday on the $6,804,161 in state, federal and private grant funding the system received this fiscal year, which reflects a sharp drop from the $7,774,500 received the previous school year — a difference of $970,339.

"We have seen a steady decline," said Kristen Behnke, the assistant superintendent for business and finance.

She added that the Pittsfield system received around $11 million in grants just a few years ago, and committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon commented that during her years as a teacher the total was much higher still.

Officials said the district is not alone in experiencing a rapid decline in what are primarily annual grants from the federal and state governments toward broad educational goals — such as special education programming and student needs assessment; preschool or kindergarten programs, vocational education development or remedial language arts or math instruction.

That has placed more of an emphasis on obtaining more specialized or targeted grants from both government and private sources, officials said, which prompted a debate on the merits of hiring a grant writer for the school system and/or city government as well.

Committee member Pamela Farron, disability services coordinator at Berkshire Community College, said a grant writer there has been "invaluable" in working with staff members in determining which grants to apply for, how to write an effective proposal and in answering questions that inevitably crop up as those administering a grant program wade through the considerable paperwork involved.

Cynthia Taylor, a retired educator who once worked on grant proposals, urged the committee to "think outside the box" on the issue because public or private grant programs could be "an important source of revenue" for the district.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless said he would research the idea further but expressed doubts hiring a grant writer would be cost-effective.

Mayor Linda M. Tyer, an ex officio member of the committee, said the idea has been discussed in her administration but finding one person with the knowledge to deal with the wide range of grants the school system deals with probably would prove difficult. Each of the grant programs "has its own area of expertise," she said, referring to the several department heads who briefed the committee Wednesday on programs they administer.

Farron said, however, that the grant writer at BCC acts more as an adviser or coach to those seeking grants, both before submission of an application and as the grant is in the administration and reporting process.

Deputy Superintendent Joseph Curtis said one problem he has seen repeatedly occurs when a grant is obtained for a few years before the funding dries up, leading to a "start-and-stop" effect on progress toward the educational goals.

The mayor noted that the loss of a grant source after a few years also leads to a hard choice of whether the city should fund the program itself. She said that issue always has to be closely considered when applying for a short-term grant.

Taylor argued that, particularly in the arts, a grant for a single purpose like a theatrical event or events would enhance the curriculum whether or not the funding was renewed long-term.

But McCandless said with the many cultural organizations in the Berkshires also applying for grants, the schools might find themselves competing with a local institution in the same program. He said the school already receives such funding through local arts groups that obtain grants to operate programs that directly benefit city schools.

Committee member Anthony Riello said a grant writer might be valuable in seeking out and applying for competitive grants, but most of the grants school districts receive come from government sources and are annual allocations based on a needs formula or other calculations. He suggested seeking help from professional grant writers in the area as an alternative to hiring one.

The committee will begin its budget deliberations for fiscal 2017 at its next meeting. Action on a final budget is due by May 1 for submission to the mayor's office and the City Council.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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