Pittsfield school officials struggle to pare $200K to meet mayor's mark


PITTSFIELD -- The School Committee is pulling out the fiscal stops in preparing the next budget, but it still finds itself $200,000 above a spending figure requested by Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi.

The mayor wants the schools to keep an appropriation increase to $1 million above the $55,234,399 the City Council approved for this year. At this stage of the process, the budget is $1.2 million above the current spending plan.

In a budget process that is considerably speeded up under provisions in the new city charter, the committee is expected to vote on its final 2014-15 budget by May 1. Last year, the committee sent its proposal to the mayor and City Council in mid-June.

Bianchi, an ex officio member of the committee, acknowledged this week that he has asked for the budget increase to be reduced to $1 million. He said he'd hoped for more of an increase in state aid to schools, "but the numbers I stated earlier are not coming to pass. I was too optimistic."

Both city government and the school department are facing "pretty significant increases" next year, Bianchi said, adding, "We just can't do it."

Repairs needed on streets, where maintenance is long overdue, and other pressing expenses are adding to the city's overall budget squeeze, he said.

Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless reiterated that he wants to have "a transparent" school budget process and to work "as a team" with the city. While he indicated a $1.3 million increase would amount to level funding for the system, he said his administration will continue working to bring the hike down to $1 million.

"I am not sure about the ability of the city to pay for what we need," he said at one point.

"I hope the people of Pittsfield understand what we are up against," Bianchi said.

McCandless and Kristen Behnke, assistant superintendent for business and finance, outlined steps Wednesday that had reduced the school increase from about $2 million to $1.2 million thus far.

Of the $2 million in major priorities outlined at a February meeting, they said the largest chunk -- $1.3 million for contractual employee pay increases -- remains in the budget.

Of the $765,000 in other priority spending mentioned earlier, the total amount was cut to $280,000, although some funding also was added in from grants, state aid increases or other sources.

Behnke said $200,000 was dedicated toward purchasing a fleet of 43 new buses, more than $30,000 lower than previously estimated. Another $370,000 will be taken from a fund for purchase of buses that has been building up for several years to meet the first-year purchase cost of about $560,000

The buses were purchased over five years at a cost of $2,766,075, after bus trade-ins, from New England Transit Sales Inc. of Tyngsborough, she said.

Money also is expected to be saved in a $90,000 account for bus maintenance because the vehicles will be new.

Among other large priority items, $100,000 for vocational program equipment was cut, but $77,000 in grant funding will partially offset reduction.

Behnke said the state also increased "circuit breaker" funding to school districts to help pay for special education cost increases above a certain level. That will mean an extra $255,000 for Pittsfield.

The district also cut the amount allocated for fuel, which Behnke said could prove a gamble, and the schools will save $102,000 with completion of energy-efficiency projects.

Another $710,000 was taken from three revolving fund accounts -- the same as in the current budget -- for school choice money and Richmond student and vocational programming tuition. "The accounts are now very low," Behnke said.

The committee has another meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at Pittsfield High School, and the committee's Finance Committee members will meet at 4 p.m. March 31 on the budget.

A public hearing on the spending plan is set for April 9, and the fiscal 2015 budget will be voted on April 30.

McCandless has said principals, directors and coordinators earlier had requested another $2 million in new employee positions during the first round of budget meetings. Those requests broke down to 52 positions systemwide, or 45 full-time-equivalent positions, he said, adding that most aimed to address serious staffing needs.

To reach Jim Therrien:


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